After years of Juventus dominance, competition is alive and kicking again in Serie A. Former Bianconeri midfielder and manager Antonio Conte’s arrival at bitter rivals Inter last summer felt like a watershed moment; there hadn’t been a title challenge from Milan ever since AC lifted their 18th Scudetto in 2011, and not from the blue and black half of the city since the days of Jose Mourinho’s treble winners.
Maurizio Sarri took over the champions and, while they remain top of the table ahead of Sunday’s Derby d’Italia, they have had an identity crisis of sorts this season. If ever there is a time to suggest their run of eight league titles would end, it is now.
Contrary to popular belief though, Conte isn’t the only man capable of plotting his former club’s downfall. Simone Inzaghi’s work at Lazio has long gone without the credit it deserves, but there is a genuine chance that will cease to be the case come May. His side are just a point behind Juve and five ahead of Inter, and it really is about time they received acclaim at a similar level to that of their direct rivals.
While Cristiano Ronaldo has had a typically fantastic season on a personal level, carrying Juve through games when their performances have been substandard at best. There is certainly an argument to suggest the team is suffering as a result of his individualism. Lazio don’t seem to have a problem, their spirit is as strong as their attacking quality and only Atalanta, in fourth, have out-scored them this season. Plus in Ciro Immobile they have arguably the most in-form striker in Europe.
The Italian is playing the best football of his career, having hit 27 league goals this term, six more than Ronaldo; former Manchester City striker Felipe Caicedo has supplemented him nicely with a respectable total of eight.
Goal difference has generally been the key to their success this season; while it may not be directly helpful if they are level with Inter or Juve come the end of the season, a deadlock on points will be broken by head-to-head records, it has given them a good base on which to build on.
Immobile is grabbing the headlines, but Lazio have the second-best defensive record in the league, behind Inter, and, therefore, the best goal difference. Since the turn of the year in all competitions, a period which has seen them beat both Inter and Napoli in Serie A, they’ve kept four clean sheets and scored 24 goals. The balance of the team is working perfectly.
If anything really sums up Lazio’s immense form and development this season, it is the fact they are less reliant on Serbian midfielder Sergei Milinkovic-Savic. A technically gifted and imposing player, he is a real all-rounder in his position; yet, in previous years he has guided them through games, and him being crowded out of matches or a drop in form would have a damaging effect on Lazio, but with four goals and four assists this term, he has been able to chip in to the cause.
Joaquin Correa has come into his own with six goals, while ammunition is being provided by Luis Alberto, once a fringe player with few prospects at Liverpool. The Spaniard has registered 11 assists; wherever you look, everyone has their role and they’re all performing them brilliantly.
That includes Inzaghi himself, who despite working quietly in the Italian capital, where there is a battle for attention with Roma, hasn’t really been credited. There are very few links with big jobs elsewhere, the usual barometer of how well a manager is doing, and very little coverage of his rise outside of Italy.
During his playing days, the shadow of his brother, Juventus and AC Milan legend Filippo, was unavoidable; in the dugout, he is making a name for himself. In many ways, defeat to Celtic in the Europa League group stage had real long-term effects. For those who haven’t been keeping an eye on Lazio’s progress this season, it was a result which signified very little in terms of positivity; but the reality is they are much better than they showed against the Glaswegians.
They play superb combination football, constantly looking to break the lines through the centre of midfield, but their balance has been crucial. Every team would love Lazio’s predicament; they are genuine contenders for a first title in 20 years but are receiving very little wider attention.
Going under the radar will suit them just fine, though it might be time to consider just how much of a threat they pose to Juventus’ recent dynasty; as much, if not more than Inter.