Ciro Immobile’s landmark goal set off a lengthy sprint towards the crowd. Because of the running track at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, there’s a significant distance between fans and goal-line. At times in Immobile’s career, that wide space has been a blessing, a wide buffer between the boos and their target.
But on Tuesday, he ran eagerly towards his loyalists. Immobile’s match-winning goal against Feyenoord was his 200th for Lazio, where he is mostly appreciated and the fact he reached that milestone in the Champions League and with it pushed the Rome club up into one of the qualifying positions for the knockout phases made it extra special.
Immobile is 33, and he divides opinion. He has had fabulous seasons as a centre-forward, above all 2019-20 where he won Europe’s Golden Shoe for the most prolific scorer across the continent’s domestic leagues.
He has had lean times, too, a move to Borussia Dortmund that worked out badly, a rejection by Juventus, where he started his top-flight career, and long spells with the national team where the goals dried up and the boos got louder.
In two separate, losing World Cup qualifying play-offs Immobile was leading the line for the goal-shy Azzurri.
Lately, though, Immobile has been wearing the captain’s armband for Italy and anticipates taking the senior striking role in the defence of their European championship title next summer.
Naturally, there will be sceptics, who, a little unfairly, characterise him as a limited centre-forward, glossing over his creative contributions outside the penalty box.
It is the burden of the central striker in an era of ‘false nines’ and fluid tactical experimentation that redraws the role of the orthodox target man.
Tuesday in club football’s elite competition was a very good night for strikers of old-fashioned virtues. Alvaro Morata, much-maligned through portions of his career – he reported threats towards his family after he missed chances for Spain during the last Euros – netted twice in Atletico Madrid’s 6-0 thrashing of Celtic, a result that puts them in pole position, just above Lazio, in Group E.
Morata’s first was expertly poached to finish a glorious move, his second a stylish volley that spoke of confidence and form. He has 12 club goals this season and no reason to look back with any regret at the illustrious stop-offs in a career where the highs have been leavened with some lows.
Juventus, where he spent two spells, are not in the Champions League. Nor are Chelsea, where Morata played between 2018 and 2020. He recently put Real Madrid, where he started his career, in their place with a brace of headed goals in Atletico’s 3-1 victory in the derby.
Headed goals are a Morata trademark, but there is also a temptation to stereotype him as a one-dimensional centre-forward, a target man who thinks too much in straight lines.
Yet, at 31, he appears to be at a peak of his powers. “He is calmer,” remarked Atletico manager Diego Simeone. “He knows he’s important to this club and to Spain. He’s someone who will always get chances but he’s more decisive about taking them.”
Shortly after Immobile and Morata had struck their decisive blows in Rome and Madrid, up in Milan, the doyen of thirty something target-men, Olivier Giroud was throwing Group F, the most intriguing of all the Champions League mini-leagues, wide open with AC Milan’s second goal in the 2-1 triumph over Paris Saint-Germain.
Giroud turned 37 six weeks ago, old enough to have weathered many years of compatriot French grumbling that, in spite of being his country’s record international scorer, he will never play with the speed and flair of the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele or Randal Kolo Muani, the France trio who made up the losing PSG front line at San Siro.
Nor will Niclas Fullkrug, 30, quickly shake off the idea that his late-career promotion to elite football is proof that, for all his strength and effectiveness, his qualities as a striker are more mallet than magic wand.
A scuffed finish off his left ankle registered Fullkrug’s first ever goal in European club competition, putting Borussia Dortmund ahead against Newcastle United in the 2-0 victory that elevates the German club to the top of Group F.
Dortmund, who signed Fullkrug from Werder Bremen in the summer, can be a wonderful step-up for centre-forwards – Robert Lewandowski; Erling Haaland – or an unfulfilling place for them – Immobile; Alexander Isak – and Fullkrug hopes it is the platform to continue a remarkable sudden rise.
He has played more of his senior football in the second and third divisions than the Bundesliga’s top flight. He only made his Germany debut last year.
The journeyman Fullkrug may not win prizes for elegance on the ball, but recognition of his instincts in the opposition penalty area grows and grows. He has scored nine times in his 11 caps. Like Giroud, Morata and Immobile, he’ll let critics scrutinise his limitations and have the numbers speak for themselves.