Could Lazio forward Keita Balde be the next big star from Serie A?
By Martin Laurence, Whoscored.com
Last Updated: 16/05/17 2:13pm
Juventus and Lazio go head to head in the Coppa Italia final live on Sky Sports on Wednesday night. Here, Whoscored.com examine why Lazio's rising star Keita Balde will be the man to watch...
While last weekend represented the first chance for Juventus to secure a record-breaking sixth successive Serie A title, Max Allegri clearly had other things on his mind. With the likes of Dani Alves, Giorgio Chiellini, Alex Sandro, Claudio Marchisio and Paulo Dybala rested, The Old Lady fell to a 3-1 defeat at Roma with one eye very much on Wednesday's Coppa Italia final.
The same could be said of fellow finalists Lazio, who also fielded a much changed line-up as they lost 3-2 away from home at Fiorentina. Simone Inzaghi actually rested even more of his first-team regulars than Allegri, but there was one man the Lazio manager couldn't bring himself to leave out. Indeed, while all eyes will be on the likes of Dybala and the resurgent Alves on Wednesday night, there's little question that Lazio forward Keita Balde is the man in form.
The 22-year-old has shown real promise for some time now but this has unquestionably been his breakthrough year. In the 3-2 defeat to Fiorentina, he scored his 15th league goal of the campaign. It's more than he managed in his previous three seasons at Lazio combined. It also puts him in the top 10 scorers in Italy's top flight this year.
It's an even more impressive return when you consider that 10 of the Senegal international's 30 league appearances this season have come as a substitute.
A strike rate of a goal every 124.3 minutes is a hugely impressive return, better not only than Lazio's leading marksman Ciro Immobile (22 goals at a rate of one every 133.8 minutes) but also Premier League stars like Sergio Aguero, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Diego Costa.
His goal haul has rocketed over the past few weeks, thrusting Keita into the limelight ahead of Wednesday's Stadio Olimpico showdown. Indeed, with seven goals in his last four appearances, the youngster is the most lethal forward in Europe's top-five leagues over that period. Barcelona's Lionel Messi is his closest rival with six.
Keita's purple patch has coincided with a move to the centre-forward position but he is more traditionally considered as a wide player, where he is able to utilise his pace and power to trouble opposition defences. Indeed, his ability to beat a man is one of his standout qualities. Since breaking into the Lazio team in 2013/14, Keita has completed a dribble every 31.6 minutes, which ranks third of players to have made 100 or more Serie A appearances in that timeframe.Previously, though, his end product was often found wanting. Keita only had a hand in six goals last season and his shot conversion rate of just 6.5 per cent was holding him back from being considered a genuine star of the future. But that is certainly beginning to change. His recent flurry in front of goal has seen his conversion rate for the current campaign jump to a very impressive 21.7 per cent, and his new role in a central position is certainly getting the best out of the former Barcelona youth player.
Keita has started just six games as a striker all season but has found the net nine times in said matches to record a sensational rating of 8.39 from WhoScored.com. Of the 46 players to start five or more games as a centre-forward, the youngster's score is the highest in Serie A.
The Juventus defence may well have to be at their imperious best on Wednesday to stop him. The Old Lady's backline have held firm against more celebrated strike forces, but they have come face-to-face with very few players in better form than Keita right now.
In fact, Juventus haven't faced the youngster at all this season as he was an unused substitute in the Supercoppa back in August, suspended for their first league meeting and away on international duty for the second.
He has scored against some strong opponents this season, however, including the likes of Fiorentina, Napoli and Roma. If he can add to his tally against the very best that Italy has to offer on Wednesday night, then Keita really will be living up to the hype.
Watch Juventus v Lazio in the Coppa Italia final live on Sky Sports 4 HD from 7.55pm on Wednesday