Before 60,000 fans, Lazio came back from one goal down, sealed a crucial victory against Inter, overtook them in the standings and moved to only one point behind leaders Juventus. They are the real deal.
In case some critics still doubted their realistic objectives for the current season, the Biancocelesti proved yet again they are taking the Scudetto race very seriously, and improved their remarkable unbeaten run to 19 league games. In fact, the Biancocelesti lost their last Serie A fixture on September 29, suffering a 1-0 defeat at San Siro against none other than Inter.
In one of the most important games of the season thus far, Simone Inzaghi and Antonio Conte opted for the usual 3-5-2 line-ups that have worked wonders for both teams this year. With Senad Lulic ruled out for injury for at least a month, the hosts confirmed Jony as the left pawn of the midfield and favoured Adam Marusic over Manuel Lazzari on the right flank. All the talk was of Joaquin Correa partnering Ciro Immobile, but instead Felipe Caicedo started again. This, it would turn out, was a calculated show of strength in depth.
No surprises for Inter, either, as Daniele Padelli replaced injured Samir Handanovic in goal for the fourth game in a row and Matias Vecino was once again preferred to newly-arrived Christian Eriksen in midfield. Up front, Lautaro Martinez paired up with Romelu Lukaku for the first time in Serie A since his two-game suspension.
The first 45 minutes of play delivered a thrilling and well-balanced game of football that clearly showed why both teams have grown into becoming title-contenders. Lazio, however, were the first to get close to breaking the deadlock: after only eight minutes, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic picked up a pass from Luis Alberto in the offensive third, quickly brought the ball forward and loaded a powerful shot that rattled the crossbar as Padelli stayed anchored to the ground.
Due to the solid defensive display of both teams, the attacking units were often forced to take harmless, long-distance shots, with a growing feeling that only a counter attack could change the course of the match. At the 43rd minute mark, Ashley Young took the ball forward as the progression of Inter's midfielders on the right out-numbered Lazio's defence. Antonio Candreva picked up a pass on the right flank and suddenly took an insidious shot towards Thomas Strakosha, who forced a save without managing to block the ball. Young, who had continued his run in the box, was then able to slot it in with a brilliant half volley that bounced off the ground, leaving no chance for the ‘keeper.
Everyone has been waiting for Eriksen to make the difference after the January transfer window, but it’s Young who has taken to Serie A like a duck to water. He brings the physicality that has so often been lacking in Italian football and shown a considerably better eye for a cross once he has options to find in the box.
Similarly, people assumed Samir Handanovic would be missed for his saves, but didn’t realise just how important the captain is to his defence. The lack of communication between Padelli and his teammates is evident, as so often they’d rush to clear a ball that he was halfway out to reaching himself. Not having Handanovic back there also creates a sense of anxiety within the back three that wasn’t there before. Anyone who dared criticise the Slovenian will now be counting down the days until his return.
At the 63rd minute mark, Inzaghi shuffled his cards by replacing Felipe Caicedo with Joaquin Correa and Jony with Lazzari, hence giving a bit more flair and above all pace to Lazio's attack against tiring legs.
Within five minutes, the Biancocelesti had taken the lead. Marusic’s powerful shot from a corner was brilliantly saved on the line by Marcelo Brozovic, but in the following scramble a cold-blooded SMS managed to dribble Lukaku and set up his left foot for a curled shot towards the left hand side of the goal. Despite being able to see the ball, Padelli reacted too slowly and conceded the fourth goal in three league games as a starter for Inter.
Not even Conte's late changes could turn the game around, and when Lukaku had a clear chance to score a second goal, Francesco Acerbi blocked his shot in monumental fashion.
Lazio took home yet another crucial win over one of the best sides in the league this year. They did so thanks to the all-round outstanding performance of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and the determination of a group of players who are highly aware of their means and seem to never back down.
Inter, on the other side, lost momentum in the second half and once again showed some dangerous defensive flaws. In general, it feels like Conte should try and adopt different systems as games progress, as his 3-5-2 is starting to look too predictable and, at times, sterile. If the two strikers don’t find the net, it’s not clear where the goals are going to come from.
Conte said this was the battle of two underdogs rather than a title showdown. Inter have lost only two games in Serie A this season, to the teams ahead of them in the table. Lazio have picked up victories over both Inter and Juventus, so it’s time to stop calling them an outlier.