Lazio’s win over Juventus on Saturday was a statement.
Coming from behind to become the first team to beat Maurizio Sarri’s side this season certainly peaked the attention of any dozy onlookers who hadn’t noticed the momentum building on the blue side of Rome.
The result spoke volumes about the progress this team is making. And it spoke loudly.
It said that Simone Inzaghi’s side are no flat-track bullies, that this is a team capable of beating anyone on their day.
It said that the days of flopping on the big occasion, of failing to respond to adversity, of choking at crucial moments, are behind them.
It said that with players of the calibre of Luis Alberto, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Ciro Immobile, Lucas Leiva, Manuel Lazzari and Francesco Acerbi playing at this level, the sky is their limit.
Staggering statistics oozed out of the game like chocolate from a hot cornetto.
It was Lazio’s first home league win over Juve in 16 years, their first seven-game winning streak in the first half of a Serie A season, their first time scoring at least two goals in 10 consecutive league games, their first time scoring at least three goals in six consecutive league home games, the first time Inzaghi had beaten Sarri as a coach.
But it was the sights that mattered most, not the numbers. A stunning choreography at a sold-out Stadio Olimpico, packed to the rafters with ecstatic laziali, was the perfect setting for one of the games of the season so far.
Those fans have plenty of reasons to be hopeful, not least because they have the top scorer in European football in Immobile (17 goals), and behind him the man with the most assists (11) on the continent in Alberto.
Week in, week out, they are demonstrating a never-say-die attitude and character that was previously rarely seen. They scored late winners against Sassulo, AC Milan and Fiorentina, before responding to Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener in superb fashion.
Nothing demonstrated quite how well Lazio played in that game better than the fact that numerous journalists, fans, pundits and commentators began to talk about the possibility of a three-horse Scudetto race.
Then came Thursday’s 2-0 Europa League defeat to Rennes.
It wasn’t that result, but Lazio’s European campaign as a whole, that has underlined why it is fanciful to entertain the notion that the Biancocelesti could challenge Juve and Inter for the title this season.
Many people have understandably been left baffled by the Aquile’s woeful performances in Europe, as they picked up just six points to get knocked out at the group stage for the first time in 10 years, finishing behind Celtic and Cluj.
The answer is relatively simple. Inzaghi has rotated his team in every European match this season, and his B-team have comprehensively failed to show anywhere near the same fluency and coherence as the first-choice XI.
To echo the words used in this same column earlier this season, rotation equals stagnation for Lazio. And that, effectively, is why they can’t hope to challenge Juve and Inter over the course of a 38-game campaign.
The poor performances of Lazio’s reserve players, particularly new signings like Jony and Denis Vavro, has been one of the great disappointments of the season so far.
Although others, like Felipe Caicedo and Danilo Cataldi, have shown they have something to offer, those players are a world away from the options warming the benches of Sarri and Antonio Conte – no matter how much the latter likes to argue the case.
What’s more, Lazio are actually two points worse off at the moment than they were two seasons ago. During the 2017/18 campaign they started fast, thrilled fans and looked a shoe-in for a return to the Champions League, only to throw all their good work away on the final two days of the season.
This is by no means a criticism of Lazio. What they have achieved so far in Serie A deserves immense credit and plentiful celebration.
They are already four points clear of Roma, five ahead of Atalanta and a momentous 12 above Napoli – all of whom have distracting European exploits to attend to in the new year.
Lazio know only too well that the road is long and with that in mind, an early elimination from Europe could actually work to their advantage.
This is the first time since Inzaghi’s first full season in charge that Lazio have the entire second half of the campaign to focus on one thing, and one thing only: finally reaching the Champions League.
Because let’s not forget, that is their objective. That is the central goal driving this team forward, the one thing they want above all else.
Is the Scudetto too much for them? Of course it is.
But this isn’t the moment to belittle Lazio for their deficiencies in a title race they don’t even consider themselves to be a part of.
This is the time to be proud of the style with which they have gained an early advantage in the top four race – and that, quite rightly, is the only race Inzaghi and his men are focused on running.
How well do you know Italian football? Want to challenge the best Serie A Fantasy Managers? Play www.fantasyseriea.com now!