As the ball plummeted from the stratosphere towards earth on a frosty afternoon in Ferrara, few of us anticipated the moment of magic that was to follow. Supporters in row Z ducked for cover, while S.P.A.L. defenders threw their bodies into the line of fire, hoping to deny Lazio’s Luis Alberto a speculative crack at goal.
The Spaniard lined up a cannonball, but just as the entire world simultaneously flinched, he took that blinking of an eye to offer a shimmy of the hips, stop the ball dead, sit another two markers down on the floor, and then roll the ball beyond a baffled goalkeeper.
In that moment, Alberto confirmed the suspicions that had lingered for the previous six months – this guy is special.
The Sevilla academy product arrived in Rome in 2016, and having promised so much at youth level – yet delivered so little on the big stage – he was fast approaching the point of no return. There are only so many chances a player can be given at Europe’s summit, after all.
For many, a miserable spell in England with a below-par Liverpool side had seen him written off as a featherweight in the midfield, unable to hold his own, and a boy against men. After 12 appearances for the Reds and two loan spells back in Spain, the Merseysiders decided to call time on his stay in the Premier League – he simply wasn’t who they thought he was.
Liverpool cut their losses on the playmaker, selling him to Lazio for half the price they’d paid only three years prior. Arriving in his mid-20s, Alberto’s career had stagnated and he found himself back in a familiar position – viewed as a possible game-changer with bags of potential, but yet to demonstrate he could harness it at a professional level.
And his first season in the Italian capital only added to fears that he simply wasn’t built to cope with the physical demands of the game he played so daintily and beautifully. Nine appearances and a solitary goal was all the Spanish star mustered for the 2016/17 campaign, and once again, he was back on the periphery.
But as with any top quality player, whose life work is to prove his doubters wrong, Alberto’s chance came the following year – and he took it emphatically. Since that moment, he has slowly grown into one of the greatest attacking midfielders in world football.
Once considered too weak to compete in the heart of a midfield, Alberto is now the matchstick which sets Lazio’s game alight. He, along with the rest of his teammates, have benefitted from the consistency between manager and playing staff over the past few years, as le Aquile have battled hard to retain the services of coach Simone Inzaghi and his gems on the pitch.
Alberto lives on a telepathic wavelength with the lethal striker and this year’s Capocannoniere Ciro Immobile, while thriving off the strength and physical presence of fellow midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and the defensive-minded Lucas Leiva.
But what exactly does the Spanish star bring to the Lazio midfield? Well, he is, without doubt, one of the most intelligent and classy operators in the world. Although not blessed with blistering pace or an imposing physique, Alberto has learnt how to squeeze every drop of quality out of his game.
The Eagles’ midfield star is so gifted when in possession of the ball, that his touch and control is mesmerising. He is able to manoeuvre his way out of the tightest of spaces, utilising his neat footwork and silky skills to evade challenge after challenge, while all the time searching for the next pass to play. He’s just got that glide.
And that’s what makes Alberto so good. Not only is he technically lightyears ahead of the majority of opponents he encounters, but he is so mentally alert, that just like a snooker player, he is thinking two or three moves ahead of his counterparts.
Close him down with his back to goal, and you’ll be lulled into believing you’re holding the winning hand. But Alberto has always got an ace hidden up his sleeve, ready to release himself with a clever backheel, a turn into and then out of trouble, or a ball around the corner performed from muscle memory alone.
Finally, the ex-Barcelona B man has been given the tools and conditions to thrive, and he is using them to tear Serie A from limb to limb. The playmakers array of assists for his grateful teammates are stunning. He boasts the quality to play any type of pass, from any blade of grass on the pitch.
El Mago often floats around the midfield, dropping deep to spring lightning counter-attacks against sterner opposition, or operates around the penalty area to pick the lock of the more stubborn adversaries.
And what has really pushed the Lazio star over the edge is his end product. Whereas plenty of these maverick-types drift in and out of games, Alberto remains firmly at the heart of proceedings, demanding the ball to penetrate defences with a threaded pass in behind or over the top.
It goes without saying then, that his free-kicks and corners are equally as deadly. All in all, Alberto is a joy to watch, and he is now the elegant player Liverpool hoped they’d signed seven years ago. A stereotypically glorious Spanish midfielder, with all the grace and ruthlessness of an assassin in a tuxedo.
Memories of Alberto may be tainted in England following his fateful spell at Liverpool as a young boy, but he is now the man schooling those lesser talented and the inexperienced around him, and he is a genuine pleasure to witness in full flight.
After circling in search of a suitable home, the Eagle has finally landed.