The resumption of this Serie A season was supposed to rescue Lazio from another century of ‘what ifs’. They had lost a chance to become champions of Italy on the only previous occasion that football was suspended mid-season – back in 1915. When the country went into lockdown this March, there were fears of history repeating.
Lazio were one point behind Juventus at the top of Serie A, and unbeaten in 21 games. They had scored more goals than the champions and conceded fewer. When the two teams met for a pair of head-to-head showdowns in December – first in the league, then the Supercoppa – Lazio prevailed both times by an identical margin of 3-1.
No other club in Serie A was more anxious to see this season completed. Before the league resumed last month, players agreed to take pay cuts – reflecting the club’s lost revenue as a result of the pandemic – that would be offset by a substantial bonus if they went on to win the title.
“This team is absolutely worthy of a scudetto,” said the centre-back Francesco Acerbi. “In moments of difficulty we have never let ourselves become disunited. If the season resumes, I believe that mentality will endure to the end.”
It takes more than the right mindset, though, to win football games. Four matches into the restart, Lazio’s title dreams are already in tatters. It is their legs, not their heads, that have failed them.
They lost their first game back, away to Atalanta, despite racing into a 2-0 lead by the 11th minute. There is no shame in dropping points to one of the best attacking teams in Europe, but Lazio’s players looked out on their feet in the second half. With two games to play every week until the 2 August, they will have little chance to regroup.
Lazio showed character as they came from behind to beat Fiorentina and Torino, but the contrast between their performances and those of Juventus – piling up 13 goals in a fortnight – was vivid. While the Bianconeri were moving ahead at full sail, the Biancocelesti were busy plugging leaks.
Their squad had already been stretched thin by injuries, before Ciro Immobile and Felipe Caicedo picked up yellow-card suspensions during their win in Turin. Lazio would have to face a resurgent Milan on Saturday without their two most prolific strikers, responsible for 37 goals between them.
The manager Simone Inzaghi did what he could, moving Luis Alberto up to partner Joaquín Correa in attack, but that left a gap in midfield. Lucas Leiva, who had not even made an appearance off the bench since a knee operation in April, was thrust back into the starting XI. Unsurprisingly, like so much of this team, he looked a long way from his best.
It was Lucas who let Hakan Calhanoglu bypass him too easily in the 23rd minute, before the Milan player let fly with a shot that deflected off Marco Parolo’s boot and into Lazio’s net. For the third game in a row, Lazio had conceded the opening goal. This time they could not recover.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic beat Thomas Strakosha again in the 31st minute, but this strike was disallowed for offside. No matter. From their next attack, the Rossoneri earned a penalty, Alexis Saelemaekers’s cross striking the arm of Stefan Radu. Strakosha got a hand to Ibrahimovic’s shot, but could not stop it from squirming across the line.
Lazio kept taking on water. Saelemaekers, supported by Andrea Conti, tormented Radu on Milan’s right. After Ibrahimovic had occupied and bullied Lazio’s defenders in the first half, Ante Rebic replaced him in the second, offering speed and directness to exploit the gaps in a Lazio side that had no choice but to throw men forward. The Croat made it 3-0 just before the hour mark.
That scoreline was a testament to how much Milan have improved lately under Stefano Pioli. But it was also a stark reminder of how the pandemic has impacted outcomes on the pitch.
Before the coronavirus interruption, Lazio were unbeaten at the Stadio Olimpico, with 11 wins and three draws. They had the tightest defence in Serie A, and had aplus-37 goal difference. There were plenty of ways you could imagine them blowing their shot at the title, but a thrashing like this at home to Milan (whose own goal difference had not strayed above zero since September) was not high on the list.
Of course, anything can happen in a one-off game. Inzaghi is fond of reminding reporters that “in football, you can go from the stars to the stalls in no time at all”. But there is no denying that the trajectories of these two teams have shifted drastically from where they were.
It was always going to be more difficult for them to win the title under the present conditions. Their squad has always been thinner than Juventus’s. Lazio’s great advantage, in the spring, would have been the opportunity to concentrate all their energies on the league, enjoying extra days of rest between games while the Bianconeri juggled Serie A with the Coppa Italia and Champions League.
Inzaghi refused to abandon hope on Saturday, insisting that his team would push on to the end, even if he would be picking his starting XI for the next game “together with the team doctor”. Lazio trail Juventus now by seven points, but there are still eight matches to go, and Juventus’s next two – at Milan and then home to Atalanta – will be far sterner tests than they have faced in the league since the restart.
For Lazio’s fans, though, the dream is fading. To be replaced, once again, with frustration, at the thought of what might have been.
• An improbable way for Lazio’s title dream to be dashed, but a perfectly predictable path for Internazionale. From 1-0 up, with a man advantage and a penalty to take in the 61st minute against Bologna, they contrived to lose 2-1. The 18-year-old Musa Juwara made a thrilling impact off the bench for Bologna, scoring the equaliser, but his performance does not excuse another implosion. Lautaro was anonymous even before missing the penalty and Roberto Gagliardini fluffed the follow-up. But this was another collective collapse, of the sort that was never supposed to happen on Antonio Conte’s watch.
• Cristiano Ronaldo has scored a free-kick for Juventus, at the 43rd attempt. In so doing, he became the first Juventus player to reach 25 goals in Serie A since Omar Sivori in 1960-61.
• Atalanta are the only team besides Juventus to have won every game in Serie A since the restart – though this was the toughest one yet, away to Cagliari. Giovanni Simeone had a beautiful opener disallowed for a very modern handball decision, before Luis Muriel’s penalty took the points. Atalanta are almost certainly too far back to fight for the title.
• Welcome back Nicolò Zaniolo, who came off the bench for Roma to play his first game since rupturing a cruciate ligament in January. His appearance in Naples was a welcome sight, but overshadowed in the end by a brilliant winning goal from Lorenzo Insigne. His only previous Serie A goal at the Stadio San Paolo this season was a winner against Juventus.