As prolific as Ronaldo: Why Lazio legend Immobile feels he deserves more respect

Ciro Immobile Lazio Venezia Serie A 2021-22Getty

Ahead of Lazio's Serie A clash with Juventus last November, club president Claudio Lotito presented Ciro Immobile with a framed jersey to commemorate the striker becoming the Romans' all-time leading goalscorer.

In recognition of his historic haul, the number 160 was emblazoned on the back of the special-edition shirt, just below the words 'The King'.

Immobile managed to keep his emotions in check during the presentation but as he made his way back to the dressing room, he looked towards the Curva Nord and saw one giant banner sporting an image of his face, and another which read 'Welcome to History'.

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Tears began to well in Immobile's eyes. And it was easy to understand why: achieving legendary status has been anything but easy.

Just a couple of months before, Immobile had been racked with self-doubt. 

He had begun the season in fine form, netting six times in his first five Serie A appearances, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't quite suited to Maurizio Sarri's style of play.

Lazio's performances at that point were disjointed and inconsistent, and Immobile asked the newly appointed coach, "Am I a problem for the team?"

Sarri said no and assured him that he would adapt his tactics to Immobile's strengths.

As he told Sky Sport Italia last month, "This is a team with a centre-forward who scores over 30 goals per season, so we have to build around his characteristics. There’s no point avoiding that."

That approach is reaping dividends, with Lazio having picked up 17 points from their last eight games to climb from eighth to fifth in the Serie A standings ahead of this weekend's derby against sixth-placed Roma.

The Biancocelesti's rise has been founded upon greater solidity at the back but Immobile is still scoring goals.

Indeed, his winner from the penalty spot against Venezia on Monday night gave him the outright lead over Dusan Vlahovic in the race for this season's capocannoniere award.

It also saw Immobile become Lazio's all-time leading scorer in Serie A, moving him one ahead of previous record holder Silvio Piola.

Perhaps even more interestingly, he has now scored as many league goals (144) as Cristiano Ronaldo since joining Lazio from Borussia Dortmund in 2016, while only Robert Lewandowski (185) and Lionel Messi (164) have struck more times across Europe's 'Big Five' championships over the past six years.

It's also worth pointing out that he has a better shot conversion rate (20 per cent) than both Messi (17.05%) and Ronaldo (14.68%) during the same timeframe, and converted a greater share of his 'big chances' (52.04%) than even Lewandowski (47.68).

Yet Immobile's name is never mentioned in debates over the best strikers of the modern era.

Part of that, of course, is down to his poor record at international level: 15 goals in 54 appearances for Italy.

On two separate occasions, he has gone two years without finding the back of the net for his country.

Immobile struck twice during the group stage of Italy's Euro 2020 triumph but, in England at least, his campaign is probably best remembered for his 'simulation' during the last-16 win over Belgium.

The widely held belief is that the Azzurri won the tournament without a world-class striker, and that argument has only been strengthened by the team's subsequent failure to secure automatic qualification for this year's World Cup.

Despite dominating their final two group games, against Switzerland and Northern Ireland, Italy were held to consecutive draws and must now navigate a play-off bracket that also features Portugal in order to make it to Qatar.

Immobile has, thus, borne the brunt of the criticism and he freely admits it has upset him.

"I can’t deny that I struggle sometimes," he told reporters in November. "My figures [with Italy] are not the same as the ones at Lazio, but it’s impossible to have the same.

"We only play seven-to-eight games a year with the national team. I’d like to score the same amount of goals.

"But I don’t get the same treatment as others and, sometimes, it seemed that I wasn’t part of the team that won the Euros."

Indeed, Mancini even felt compelled to remind the Immobile last September, "You are a European champion. You don't need to prove anything."

He certainly doesn't need to prove anything to anyone at the Stadio Olimpico. Lazio fans idolise Immobile and their Roma counterparts respect him.

In fact, he admitted earlier this week that some Giallorossi supporters had even been begging him not to play on Sunday night.

What's clear from looking at Immobile's career is that when he feels important, like a key player in any team, he scores freely. 

For example, at Borussia Dortmund, he felt he was given little help settling in off the field, and thus struggled on it, admitting that the perceived lack of support from the club played a part in him buckling under the pressure of replacing Lewandowski, who had just left for Bayern Munich.

There were tactical and stylistic issues at Sevilla, meanwhile, and he left the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan after just six months, 15 appearances and four goals, returning to Torino, where he kick-started his career.

What he has since achieved at Lazio certainly deserves respect. 

Despite not playing for one of Serie A's strongest sides, he has been crowned capocannoniere twice, to take his overall tally to three, having previously finished as top scorer with Torino in 2013-14, and even claimed the European Golden Shoe in 2020 after equalling Gonzalo Higuain's single-season record for Serie A goals (36).

He's not made any secret of the fact that his primary objective now is ensuring he's "Italy's starting striker at the World Cup".

His critics will argue that the Azzurri might not even make it to Qatar if they have to rely on the 32-year-old to fire them past North Macedonia and Portugal or Turkey in the upcoming play-offs.

Immobile, though, is by his own admission as "stubborn" as they come. 

He's been written off umpteen times in his career and yet he still keeps scoring. 

And Sunday night's derby offers another excellent opportunity for the king of Rome to prove that he could belatedly become the saviour of Italy.