As the referee blew the final whistle on their nervy 2-2 draw against Club Brugge last week, Lazio had officially achieved something they hadn’t done for over two decades: qualify for the Champions League knockout stages.
It was a monumental achievement for a club who hadn’t even played in the competition for 13 years and even more so when you realise that they finished the group stage unbeaten in spite of having squad seriously lacking in depth and a Coronavirus outbreak back in October.
With Lazio’s qualification sealed, their attentions were now focused on the following week’s group stage draw, to see which one of Europe’s big guns they’ll be welcoming to the Olimpico in February. Their eventual draw against Bayern Munich provoked a wide range of emotions: excitement, at facing the European champions, and pessimism, an acceptance - two months in advance - that their Champions League journey will probably end at the Allianz Arena in March.
There is an obvious gulf in quality between Bayern and Lazio, and pessimism would have reigned even if the Biancocolesti were in the kind of form that saw them go 21 games unbeaten last season. But they aren’t. Simone Inzaghi’s side have struggled for form since football’s restart back in June, and that only makes the prospect of beating Bayern seem even more unlikely.
It doesn’t help that Lazio’s performances have been especially substandard recently. Out of their last five games, the Biancoclesti have won just once; an incredibly lucky 2-1 victory at Spezia, where the hosts had 66% possession and 15 shots compared to Lazio’s 34% possession and 4 shots. It’s not like their fixtures have been particularly difficult either: Udinese, Spezia, and Hellas Verona are all sides that a top-four club should really be beating convincingly. Instead, they could only scrape a win against Spezia and suffered embarrassing defeats to Udinese and Hellas at the Olimpico.
In fairness, these substandard performances aren’t a reflection of poor tactics or poor footballers, but a consequence of the fact that Lazio’s players seem perpetually shattered. Their tiny squad has had to cope with two fixtures a week for the past two months, which is fine when you focus all your attentions onto one competition, as the Biancocelesti did last season, but a big issue when you’re trying to simultaneously compete in two.
Take their 2-1 defeat to Verona on Saturday, for example. Lazio couldn’t play their usual, slick, counter-attacking style-of-play because their players didn’t have the energy to do so, and as a result, were no match for a side as defensively organised as the Gialloblu. Both of Verona’s goals came from sloppy mistakes on Lazio’s end too; the first being an own goal, and the second a result of Stefan Radu playing a pass straight towards the feet of a sprinting Gialloblu attacker, who easily scored.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The upcoming Christmas break should allow for Lazio’s players to recharge their batteries, and their new year schedule is significantly less busy in the build-up to the Bayern clash in February. This should give them the time and space to recapture the kind of form that made them such a force in Serie A last season, and give them the confidence they need to go to the European champions and believe they have a chance of winning. This side is no stranger to taking big scalps.
It’s also easy to forget that, in the midst of Lazio performing so poorly, that Inzaghi has genuinely world-class players at his disposal. Ciro Immobile, Luis Alberto, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are the “difference makers” and if they’re at the top of their game come February, Bayern could face a difficult task containing them.