Lazio’s last trip to San Siro raised their hopes of Champions League qualification to a new high.
Less than a fortnight ago, a superb 1-0 win over Inter made Simone Inzaghi’s side frontrunners to burst into the top four, but things change quickly in football.
The damaging week which followed, where they picked up just one point from games against SPAL and Sassuolo, means the Aquile return to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on Saturday needing another big win, this time against AC Milan, to revive their flagging form.
Despite the recent disappointments, the Biancocelesti remain firmly in the mix, with just three points separating them from the Rossoneri in fourth and a game in hand against Udinese to come next week.
It would require a minor miracle, but if Lazio were to somehow win all of their remaining eight games they would be guaranteed of ending a 12-year wait to return to European football’s most prestigious and lucrative competition. A minor miracle indeed.
Before any Aquile fans run off to hang out the Champions League bunting in anticipation of this unlikely winning streak, they are advised to consult the historical records.
Their last Serie A win against Milan at San Siro came in September 1989.
The Romans have, in total, won just nine games at the venue to the Rossoneri’s 75 victories.
Inzaghi is the only coach that Gennaro Gattuso remains unbeaten against, with two wins and three draws from their five meetings.
Plus, the home side are every bit as motivated and aware of the significance of this clash. More than 60,000 fans are expected to pack into the stands, while Friday’s Gazzetta dello Sport pointed to the financial consequences by branding it “a €50 million match” for the Rossoneri.
“Against Lazio it’ll be a final,” Gattuso said this week.
“If we want to qualify for the Champions League, we can’t lose. We need maximum points.”
Lazio have some work to do, then. There are reasons for optimism though, not least in the hope of replicating the performance against Inter two weeks ago, when the team defended stoutly and threatened regularly going forward, with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s goal making the difference.
Also, while much has been made this season of Lazio’s struggles in big games, Milan have had similar issues.
Gattuso’s side have won just two of their 12 meetings with the other seven teams in the current top eight, drawing five and losing five.
The two meetings between these sides so far this season, one in Serie A and one in the Coppa Italia, both ended in draws. They were both played at the Stadio Olimpico and followed similar trends, with the capital club dictating play but failing to break through a stubborn Diavolo defence.
Joaquin Correa’s stoppage-time equaliser back in November’s 1-1 draw was spectacular, but he hasn’t scored a league goal since. Now would be a good time for the Argentine to find some end product.
These teams are getting in each other’s way in their efforts to complete their season objectives, not only in the race for the top four but also in the cup, where they will meet again in the semi-final second leg in 10 days to decide who reaches the final after drawing the first leg 0-0.
Looking at the run-ins of all the teams involved makes it clear why this fixture is being branded as crucial to deciding who will finish fourth.
By the time the full-time whistle blows, Milan and Lazio will be the only two sides of the six fighting for Champions League positions who will have already faced all the traditional big teams; as well as each other, that includes Juventus, Napoli, Inter and Roma.
The run-in for the Champions League chasers
3. INTER (57 pts): Frosinone (A), Roma, Juventus, Udinese (A), Chievo, Napoli (A), Empoli
4. MILAN (52 pts): Lazio, Parma (A), Torino (A), Bologna, Fiorentina (A), Frosinone, SPAL (A)
5. ATALANTA (52 pts): Empoli, Napoli (A), Udinese, Lazio (A), Genoa, Juventus (A), Sassuolo
6. ROMA (51 pts): Udinese, Inter (A), Cagliari, Genoa (A), Juventus, Sassuolo (A), Pama
7. LAZIO (49 pts*): Milan (A), Udinese, Chievo, Sampdoria (A), Atalanta, Cagliari (A), Bologna, Torino (A)
8. TORINO (49 pts): Cagliari, Genoa (A), Milan, Juventus (A), Sassuolo, Empoli (A), Lazio
*Lazio have a game in hand
That’s not to say that the winner of Saturday’s meeting will have an easy time of it and coast to fourth place.
Lazio still have to deal with direct rivals Atalanta and Torino, as well as a talented Sampdoria side and a Bologna team fighting for its future in the top flight.
Milan have to travel to Toro and see off Bologna, while facing an unpredictable Fiorentina team away from home under the leadership of their former coach Vincenzo Montella and a SPAL side that has beaten Roma and Lazio recently.
Gazzetta dello Sport tried to assess the fixture list by handing each team a star rating from one to five in difficulty, five being the hardest and one being the easiest.
The average difficulty of each team’s remaining fixtures makes for some interesting reading:
This once again highlights the importance of a win for both teams at San Siro, with Lazio and Milan, at least according to one national newspaper’s opinion, enjoying an easier run-in than all their rivals other than Roma.
Lazio have nothing to fear from Milan. They have nothing to fear from San Siro. Now it’s simply a case of ending a 30-year wait to prove that point, categorise a harrowing dip in form as a blip, and put fresh life into their Champions League charge.
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