Ending Napoli curse could be watershed moment in Lazio’s Champions League chase


It’s all too easy to get lost in football statistics nowadays.

For followers of Lazio, this has been truer than ever of late. Every match, every win, every goal, seems to set a new historic landmark or shatter some long-standing record.

Among the avalanche of numbers and information that has tumbled from the slipstream of the Roman club’s nine-match winning run in Serie A was an important moment for Simone Inzaghi.

The Lazio coach had never beaten his Juventus counterpart Maurizio Sarri until December’s thrilling 3-1 victory at the Stadio Olimpico, only to then go and repeat the feat just two weeks later to win the Supercoppa Italiana in Riyadh.

Inzaghi is riding high at the moment. His decision over the summer to stick with the club he has represented as a player, youth coach and manager for the last 20 years has been justified this season, as the vision he has worked towards for the last four years comes to fruition.

He is reaping the rewards of his tactical tinkering, training methods, man management and individual player development. There has been trial and error along the way, but it was necessary to arrive at this point.

But this Saturday, he has another personal obstacle to overcome, and one that could be of monumental importance to his side achieving their long-harboured objective of Champions League qualification.

The visit of Napoli to the Stadio Olimpico has been a black mark on the fixture calendar for Lazio in recent years. The Aquile haven’t beaten their southern rivals at home since April 2012, and since then have only won one other meeting, a 4-2 victory at the San Paolo in May 2015.

The overall record since that 2012 win, which came courtesy of an unforgettable Stefano Mauri bicycle kick, reads: W1 D2 L11.

Inzaghi has never beaten the Partenopei during his time in charge of Lazio, drawing once and losing five times.

Furthermore, visiting boss Gennaro Gattuso, like Sarri before him, has frustrated the Biancocelesti coach more often than not in their previous meetings; Inzaghi has only beaten him once, collecting four draws and two defeats in their other clashes.

History is therefore not in Lazio’s favour, but they have made a habit over the last few months of making a mockery of historical precedence, with the back-to-back Juventus triumphs (which included a first home league victory against the champions in 16 years) coming hot on the heels of their first away win at AC Milan in 30 years.

The atmosphere at the two clubs couldn’t be more different. One is in flying form, the other trying to emerge from a crisis. One is hitting its peak, the other at the end of a cycle. One is urged on by a euphoric fanbase celebrating the club’s 120th birthday, the other enduring whistles and boos from their own support.

There is no doubt that the shoe is on the other foot for this weekend’s clash. For the first time in years, Lazio are heavy favourites.

The question now is how they will cope with that tag and the burden of expectation that comes with it.

Sunday’s victory over Brescia demonstrated once again the never-say-die attitude of this side, with yet another stoppage-time winner, but the overall performance against a 10-man relegation battler wasn’t at the level that has come to be expected.

But this Lazio team appear to have forgotten how to not win games. The nine-game winning streak is the best since Sven Goran Eriksson’s side of 1998/99, while they’ve scored at least two goals in their last 12 Serie A matches; doing so again on Saturday would match the all-time record set by the Grande Torino side of 1948.

Napoli are fragile, plagued by individual errors, and they are missing key men in Dries Mertens and, in all likelihood, Kalidou Koulibaly.

But Gattuso still possesses a squad brimming with quality, and one that is more than capable of ending Lazio’s superb run if they put in a performance akin to those against Liverpool in the Champions League, rather than their recent league outings.

Confidence is radiating from everyone at Lazio right now, but they simply can’t afford any complacency, as the stakes are too high.

Beating Napoli would open up an 18-point gap between the two sides at the midway point of the season, a remarkable gap when you consider that the vast majority of pre-season predictions had the Neapolitans comfortably in the top three and Lazio down in the Europa League spots.

With Roma facing Juventus and Atalanta travelling to Inter, Inzaghi’s men have a realistic chance to extend the gap over all of their closest rivals for the top four spots before the end of the weekend.

Make no mistake, a top four finish remains the objective. The Scudetto talk is for others.

Lazio are ahead of schedule and need to rack up the points while the wind is in their sails – Saturday promises to be a watershed moment for their hopes of finally ending a 13-year wait for Champions League football.

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