As Kostas Manolas wheeled away with a combination of delight and disbelief etched across his face, very few football fans could fail to be happy for AS Roma.
The Greek defender’s towering header handed the Giallorossi a 3-0 lead over Barcelona, sealing an unforgettable comeback over Lionel Messi and co. that will be remembered as one of the most shocking results in Champions League history.
Yet while the accomplishment was lauded across the continent, a small group of nearby supporters would’ve been far more preoccupied with the impending clash between Lazio and RB Salzburg on Thursday evening.
Those who follow the Italian capital’s other club could never find joy in watching Roma celebrate, but fortunately they too stand on the brink of a semi-final berth and have enjoyed a memorable season of their own. Indeed, as their crosstown rivals rested a plethora of important players last weekend and subsequently lost 2-0 to Fiorentina, Lazio grabbed a crucial away win at Udinese to move within a point of their neighbours.
With Juventus and Napoli running away with the top two spots, the race for Serie A’s other two Champions League berths is hotting up. Inter and Roma have 60 points, while Lazio have 59, the trio moving seven points ahead of the chasing pack and, with just seven games remaining, it looks like a race that will go right down to the wire.
Sunday sees the latest instalment of the Rome derby, while Lazio will end their 2017/18 journey by hosting Inter and, with games against Fiorentina, Atalanta and Sampdoria in between, unquestionably face the toughest schedule of the three sides hoping to secure a spot in UEFA’s elite competition.
Yet Lazio will not panic. This season has seen them take huge strides forward both domestically and in Europe, unafraid of big games and often coming out on top against the most prestigious opponents. They kicked off the campaign in style, winning the Supercoppa Italiana 3-2 against Juventus and followed that up with a 2-1 win in Turin, becoming the first side in two years to beat the Bianconeri on their own turf.
It took a penalty shootout to eliminate them from the Coppa Italia after both legs against AC Milan finished 0-0, but in Serie A they have had no problem finding the back of the net. A 4-1 victory over the Rossoneri back in September was perhaps a portend of things to come and Lazio have routinely smashed the league’s smaller teams including Sassuolo (6-1), Benevento (5-1 and 6-2), Chievo (5-1) and Crotone (4-0).
Their tally of 75 goals marks them out as Italy’s leading scorers, aided in no small part by the division’s deadliest marksman, Ciro Immobile. The striker has bagged 27 goals in just 28 appearances, adding nine assists as well as seven Europa League goals, two in the Coppa Italia and two in the aforementioned Super Cup triumph over Juve.
Having struggled when he left the peninsula for spells with Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla, the 28-year-old is unquestionably enjoying the best period of his career, surpassing even the 2013/14 season with Torino when his 23 goals were enough to be named Serie A’s top scorer.
However, he is far from the only player enjoying a breakout campaign. Former Liverpool flop Luis Alberto – whose 12 game stint at Anfield makes Ian Rush’s Juventus tenure look successful – has nine goals and a league-high 11 assists. Another ex-Red, Lucas Leiva, is single-handedly maintaining Italy’s reputation as a home for ageing players who can no longer cope with the pace of other leagues, while Jordan Lukaku has been a formidable presence on the left flank.
Nani is continuing his Cristiano Ronaldo tribute act off the bench, but two of his team-mates are likely to be among the summer’s most highly-sought-after stars. After talks over a contract extension were broken off, central defender Stefan De Vrij will be a free agent in June, his diligent defending and ability on the ball seeing him lined up as a target for Inter Milan, Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester United.
Sergej Milinković-Savić is the jewel in the Biancocelesti crown, though, expected to fetch a fee in excess of €100million given he is wanted by seemingly every one of Europe’s biggest clubs. Lazio President Claudio Lotito will be rubbing his hands gleefully at the mere thought of such a sum, but coaches like Max Allegri, Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho would be even more euphoric to find the 23-year-old at their disposal.
Powerful, blessed with a sublime touch and endless trickery, Milinković-Savić has blossomed into a versatile star who can do simply everything you could ask of a midfielder. He is defensively sound, can skip beyond defenders or bully them in the air, his tally of 11 goals and five assists merely scratching the surface of his talent.
But while he, Immobile and Luis Alberto deserve immense credit, Lazio’s success this season rests mostly with the work of Simone Inzaghi. The coach has found a variety of ways to deploy his side, never settling on one formation but almost always finding the right blend of players and tactics to overcome a particular opponent.
Preferring a three-man defence, Pippo’s little brother has proven to be a far better coach than his sibling, and he too will likely receive offers from higher profile clubs over the next few years. Yet he hopes to continue leading this group to success at the Stadio Olimpico, as he explained in an interview with Sky Italia.
“I hope all our best players stay so we can plan for next season in the best way,” said Inzaghi. “I know we have important players who have had great seasons, and I hope they all stay.” That is unlikely, but after watching Roma lead the way to the semifinals in Europe, Lazio fans will hope Inzaghi can follow suit and then win the derby on Sunday.