Lazio passed their autumn test with flying colours.
A demanding run of league fixtures between the October and November international breaks, interspersed with Europa League outings, promised to be the make-or-break moment of the season for Simone Inzaghi’s side after a mixed start.
It’s safe to say that taking 13 points from a possible 15 in games against Atalanta, Fiorentina, Torino, Milan and Lecce exceeded expectations.
Not only that, but it left the Biancocelesti in third place, albeit on goal difference, restoring their Champions League dream.
Their Europa League campaign may have been thrown on the scrapheap in the process, but domestically a corner has been turned, with Ciro Immobile leading the scoring charts, Luis Alberto topping the assist charts, and the capital club boasting the best goal difference in the division with +15.
But amid the jumbled mess of the chaotic 4-2 win at home to Lecce before the break, an important sub-plot was taking shape.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s 62nd-minute strike was more important than it may have first seemed.
It was a badly needed moment of decisiveness from the Serbian, who some supporters had started to grumble about before kick-off, after getting fed up of his unremarkable and inconsistent displays.
Renzo Garlaschelli, a member of Lazio’s 1974 Scudetto-winning side, echoed the thoughts of a growing number when he suggested that “sacrificing him would’ve presented an opportunity to reinforce the squad” over the summer.
Therefore, a goalscoring display against Fabio Liverani’s side brought the midfielder some much-needed relief.
Another former Lazio player, Massimo Pischedda, was a bit kinder, saying the Serbian’s performance was like “a bear who has woken up from hibernation”.
Inzaghi must now hope his bear stays wide awake, because while his other stars have hit sparkling form – Immobile, Alberto and Joaquin Correa – Milinkovic-Savic has been lagging behind.
The Serbia international is arguably Lazio’s most talented player, but he has struggled to return to the form that saw him become one of Europe’s most-wanted during the 2017/18 season.
Lazio need their playground bully back, the man who swaggers around the pitch brushing defenders off the ball and pinging passes around with the careless arrogance of a player who knows just how good he is.
There were signs of that in training this week, as the club’s official Instagram account posted a video of the 24-year-old scoring a remarkable back heel volley, before enjoying a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-esque celebration.
But last season the Serbian was more like a frightened child who had forgotten his PE kit, and this term his form has swayed up and down like the changing of the tides.
Milinkovic-Savic’s performances have certainly improved in 2019/20 compared to how he started the previous campaign, but the main reason he’s become a target of criticism is that everyone knows he’s capable of more.
The former Genk man has struggled to put in a 90-minute performance, with his most impressive contribution coming off the bench for the final half-hour against Rennes in the Europa League, when he scored one and assisted another to turn the game on its head and win 2-1.
The other argument Milinkovic needs to shake off is that Inzaghi’s use of the ‘four tenors’ – Milinkovic, Alberto, Correa and Immobile – leaves them too exposed against top-class opposition, and that one must be sacrificed for the sake of balance.
At this point there is no doubt that, on form, Sergej should be sacrificed if that were to happen.
A goal against Lecce and a moment of magic on the training ground are promising signs, but far from iron-clad evidence that we are about to see the best of one of Italian football’s finest midfielders once again.
For Lazio’s sake, here’s hoping that the bear has truly awoken from his hibernation this time.
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