There are only so many times you can go to the well. No team more than Lazio has shown the spirit and character needed to turn around a game this season, but in the end, that effort takes its toll. The emotional strain - and the absence of their star striker - was probably enough to kill off an already ailing title dream.
Context is a curious beast, isn’t it? Juventus have done nothing but win in the league since the resumption of hostilities and yet their fans are still less than enamoured with a Coach who looks likely to deliver yet another Scudetto. In the capital, despite being humbled by Milan, the Biancocelesti faithful can still appreciate the efforts of Simone Inzaghi. His team has had a wonderful season no matter how it should conclude.
The signs were there, perhaps, of this bad night looming for Lazio in the way their form has slumped since Serie A returned. A defeat to Atalanta - the division’s most in-form side at the moment - was nothing to be ashamed of. But having to come from behind against struggling Fiorentina and Torino was probably more alarming. In the end, if you give teams enough chances, one of them will eventually be good enough see you off.
Up stepped Milan in the role of killjoys and in the process confirmed that they appear to be one of the sides which has benefited most from sport’s unwanted intermission. Stefano Pioli has been working away with the materials he has got - some of undoubted quality - and has crafted a decent side. They did not have to be breathtaking to win on Saturday night, but it felt like the kind of game they could very easily have messed up in times gone by.
There was a sense and balance to their display which had often been missing in the opening chapters of this season. If they can keep going in this style, there is no reason to think they will not secure themselves a European place. They still feel a bit of an odd bunch at times, but there is no doubting that they have some quality performers in their squad when they put their minds to it.
Back in Rome, it is a case now of making sure they don’t let their season unravel completely. They might not have what it takes to challenge Juve - unless the Bianconeri suffer a surprising collapse - but they can still see off their rivals for second place, Inter and Atalanta. It would be a shame if this impressive season were not to end up with a deserved silver medal for their efforts so far.
This game was an example, of course, of where all of the Turin giant’s challengers generally fall down. Nobody can really rival them in terms of the strength of squad that they have built up over the years and - even if they don’t always play particularly well - they can usually pluck someone from the bench to see them through. Without Ciro Immobile and, to a much lesser extent, Felipe Caicedo - there was nothing much for Lazio to call on. Joaquin Correa kept himself very socially distant from Gigio Donnarumma in the Milan goal.
With some wise investment - and retaining their current stars - they could still become even more serious contenders for the title, but that is a hard ask. It seems that all Juve’s would-be rivals suffer from both seeing their best players depart and a lack of the financial firepower to sign up the depth they need. Even though their own fans have found them underwhelming at times this year, La Vecchia Signora is still going to saunter off with another Scudetto by the looks of it.
As for Milan, much of the same discourse is valid. They have a group of good individuals and, at last, they are starting to play as a team. However, they too will need a smart transfer campaign if they hope to really return to where they belong in the years to come. This is a good side, but followers of the Rossoneri are used to a little more than Europa League qualification.
That’s the hardest thing for the rest of Serie A in the face of a steamroller that keeps crushing their dreams. Too many teams have hoped to catch Juve overnight when the advantage the Bianconeri have built up has been constructed over many seasons. Both Lazio and Milan have got some decent foundations to keep themselves up at the top end of the table for some time to come. It is up to them to use them wisely and not knock them down - as so often happens in Italy - at the very first sign of a setback.
Giancarlo Rinaldi is the author of a number of books about Italian football. You can find out more about them here.
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