When COVID-19 still seemed a distant disease on the other side of the world, this was a Lazio squad capable of winning the Scudetto. The team has remained the same, but all the circumstances that had conspired to make them title contenders have been utterly transformed.
Ultimately, the reasons why Lazio’s best shot at a league title in 20 years will likely prove unsuccessful are out of their control. They cannot be expected to have a squad as deep as Juve’s with a payroll one quarter the size. They could not contain the spread of COVID-19 or halt the suspension of Serie A.
The problem of Lazio’s small squad has been exacerbated by a condensed league calendar. The Biancocelesti were playing only once a week before the shutdown, having already been eliminated from the Europa League and Coppa Italia. In contrast, Juventus were focused on an elusive third Champions League title and still in the Coppa.
With the remainder of the Serie A schedule now sandwiched between the Coppa Italia Final and the Champions League restart, Lazio have lost a crucial advantage. It remains to be seen whether they can withstand the physical toll of two or more matches a week through early August.
Whereas Juventus have a plethora of quality players to augment their attack, Lazio lack a proven game-changer behind Immobile, Joaquin Correa and Felipe Caicedo. Correa replaced Caicedo midway through the second half against Fioerntina, leaving young forward Andre Anderson as the last attacking option from the bench. Rather than bring on the untested Brazilian with 10 minutes remaining and Lazio still chasing a winner, coach Simone Inzaghi preferred to bring on fresh legs at both wingback spots.
As Luis Alberto wheeled away after scoring the decisive second goal for Lazio in their hard-fought 2-1 over Fiorentina on Saturday, he raised his right index finger to his mouth. With no fans in the stands, the gesture was surely directed at the critics who questioned his team’s mettle following their midweek defeat at Atalanta, which broke a 21-match unbeaten run in Serie A. Had Lazio dropped further points against La Viola, those same pundits would have proclaimed the end of their unexpected title challenge.
Luis Alberto’s strike ensures that Lazio are still within touching distance of Juventus. Bar the first 10 minutes of Wednesday’s visit to Bergamo, however, they have looked a shadow of the vibrant counter-attacking juggernaut that won the hearts of neutrals before the lockdown for COVID-19.
Capocannoniere Ciro Immobile has been out of sorts. He missed two presentable chances in the first half against La Dea that would have put the game to bed and was a peripheral figure on Saturday until his 67th-minute penalty leveled the scores. Meanwhile, the right side of Lazio’s normally solid rearguard has looked suspect. Papu Gomez ran riot on Wednesday, while Franck Ribery was a constant nuisance three days later.
There’s absolutely nothing Inzaghi can do about the lack of strength in depth now, but at least they can secure a top four finish and use the Champions League money to replenish that bare bench. At least, that’s the plan under normal circumstances. With the economic impact of the pandemic, even those funds might have to be spent elsewhere. Even Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is unlikely to command a €100m transfer fee if the club choose to sell this summer.
More than ever before, the combination of shrewd scouting and player development that fueled Lazio’s unexpected title push is crucial to their hopes of building a more complete team capable of regularly threatening Juve’s hegemony.