The contrast was startling.
After a drab, eventless first half in a must-win Europa League fixture against Rennes on Thursday, Simone Inzaghi turned to his bench early in the second.
The strategy didn’t get off to the best of starts when the hosts almost immediately conceded the opening goal, but it soon paid off as Alberto set up Milinkovic-Savic for the opener before the Serbian’s cross found the head of Ciro Immobile to complete the comeback.
Lazio aren’t generally a team who react well to going behind and this was their first comeback of any sort since a 4-3 Serie A win over Fiorentina on 17 April 2018 and their first in Europe since beating Nice on 19 October 2017. They didn’t come from behind to win all of last season.
But the most obvious message to come from the match was that the Biancocelesti are a completely different prospect when they have their strongest XI lined up rather than their rotated selection.
Yes, the same could be said for most teams. But the problem Inzaghi faces now is what to do about this Europa League campaign.
ROTATION = STAGNATION
In previous seasons, fielding a B team with a scattering of first-choice players has been enough to secure progress to the knockout stage without too much fuss. But the difficulty of Lazio’s group this season means that they might not get away with that this time around.
In both of Lazio’s group games so far, Inzaghi has tried to find a balance by giving chances to players who don’t get many while keeping some experienced regulars in there to hold things together.
It didn’t work against Cluj, where the team collapsed to defeat after taking the lead, and it showed no signs of working on Thursday until the two changes ensured Lazio had a side close to their strongest on the pitch for the final 35 minutes.
Danilo Cataldi and Valon Berisha are talented players but their lack of game time was evident as they struggled to string moves together from midfield and looked on a different wavelength from the rest of the team.
They simply don’t possess the quality of Alberto or Milinkovic-Savic. The Spaniard now has five assists for this season, second only to Kevin De Bruyne (9) in Europe’s top five leagues – although the Manchester City man has two more games under his belt.
Milinkovic-Savic showed the devastating impact he can have on a game after coming on, but Alberto and Immobile have been crucial to Lazio finding the net this season, having contributed to 11 of the club’s 14 goals in all competitions this season.
This leaves Inzaghi with some difficult decisions to make. It’s apparent that he needs these players on the pitch for his team to function properly.
OVERCOME THE APATHY
Progression from the group stages has rarely been an issue for Lazio but with a double-header against table-topping Celtic coming up next, their hopes of reaching the knockout stages could rest on the results of those games.
What’s more, winning the group should be a priority for the Roman club given their status as top seeds, and they discovered the pitfalls of not doing so last season when they faced a momentous challenge in Sevilla as early as the last 32 stage, resulting in their exit from the tournament.
But to win the group, it’s evident that Inzaghi will need his strongest line-up, or at least close to it, on the pitch for the upcoming games against the Scottish champions.
This is something he’s rarely done before as early as the group stage and with the Serie A campaign taking priority, the coach’s selection in these games will be a test of how seriously he’s taking the competition.
With the fixtures piling up, does he prioritise having Immobile, Alberto and Milinkovic-Savic fit and firing for the weekend matches, does he pick all three for every game and risk burnout or does he mix and match, picking some and dropping others while risking losing fluency and balance?
The apathy of the fans is easy to see. This is Lazio’s seventh Europa League campaign in the last 10 years and only once have they failed to get out of the groups.
The fans are bored of it, bored of seeing a B team put out to face uninspiring opposition late on a Thursday night, and after some agonising efforts to qualify for the Champions League in recent years, Europe’s secondary competition feels almost like a punishment. Only 8,000 bothered to turn up to watch Rennes.
Two games against Celtic could well capture the imagination of the fan base more, as they are a team with more European pedigree and a large following who Lazio have never met before in a competitive fixture.
After the international break Inzaghi will have to decide where his priorities lie. The two Celtic games come at the same time crucial Serie A fixtures against Atalanta, Fiorentina, Torino and Milan, matches that could go a long way to making or breaking Lazio’s top four hopes this season.
Half an hour of good football was enough to save Lazio against Rennes. Whether they’ll get away with that in the pressure cooker of Celtic Park is another question entirely.
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