Regret was the overwhelming emotion the last time Lazio faced Inter.
Joaquin Correa was guilty of squandering a series of good chances during an excellent performance, but the game was decided by Danilo D’Ambrosio out-jumping Jony for the decisive goal in a 1-0 victory for the Nerazzurri.
Not even the most mindlessly optimistic Lazio fan would’ve guessed back then, on 25 September 2019, that the Biancocelesti wouldn’t have lost another league game by the time they faced Antonio Conte’s side again.
Last Sunday’s 1-0 win over Parma set a new club record of 18 games unbeaten in Serie A , on a day that the gap between the top three clubs was squeezed to just one point.
It has been a remarkable season for Lazio so far and ahead of Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash, they have the luxury of approaching the game with nothing to lose.
Correa’s wastefulness, and a superb display from Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, left followers of the Aquile ruing a missed opportunity in September, but since then much has changed for the capital club.
Inzaghi’s team have achieved a remarkable balance on the pitch, while demonstrating consistency in performances, results and selection.
The win at Parma was dogged, but Lazio have made such a habit of edging these tight games, that by now it’s almost expected.
Already in 2020, they did the same against Brescia and Napoli, and took a point from a Rome Derby in which they were completely outplayed.
Lazio have become a team that always finds a way and, crucially, a team that won’t surrender points easily.
It’s a far cry from their defeat at San Siro, when they put in an impressive display only to leave with nothing.
Conte and his players may well be focused on how to combat their opponents’ strengths, of which there are many: Lazio have the joint-best defence in Serie A along with Inter, the league’s top scorer in Ciro Immobile and the player with the most assists in Luis Alberto.
But they will soon discover that their hosts’ mentality is their key to success. The momentum behind this team, and the unity and never-say-die attitude of the players, is markedly different now than it was in September.
The fact that only one point separates the teams is, frankly, ridiculous.
Inter have spent €150 million more on signings than Lazio have this season, while their wage bill is over twice as big; €145m to €70m.
Inzaghi and his players are allowing others to talk about the Scudetto, while keeping their gaze fixed on Champions League qualification.
The coach has taken every opportunity to dodge the question, although he did let slip after the Napoli win that his side “aren’t lacking much” to mount a challenge, while Danilo Cataldi this week diverted attention by saying “maybe we’ll talk about it again after Sunday”.
While some might read this non-committal as a lack of belief, it is in fact exactly the kind of psychology needed for this Lazio side to be at their best.
They can look at Sunday as a free shot, an opportunity to play without pressure, and Lazio are at their best when their heads are clear.
This is not, and never has been, a side either built to, or expected to, challenge for a league title, so a defeat that would leave them in third place and with a healthy gap over the chasing pack wouldn’t be a catastrophe by any measure.
Win, though, and it is going to be a lot harder for this team – and admittedly this writer – to continue denying their Scudetto credentials.
Inter have shown their unpredictable side since the turn of the year, hitting a January slump of three consecutive draws, playing dreadfully in the first half of Sunday’s Milan Derby before launching a remarkable comeback, and suffering a meek defeat at home to Napoli in the Coppa Italia in midweek.
Juventus, meanwhile, are as close as they ever get to a crisis, having lost to Hellas Verona and scraped an undeserved draw at AC Milan over the last week.
This, perhaps, is Lazio’s last week living in the world of sunny positivity they have occupied for the last five months.
A win over Inter would propel them into a position where the fans and media will demand they accept their remit as title chasers.
A loss would end this record unbeaten run, and inevitably change the narrative, rightly or wrongly, to a more negative one. It doesn’t take much for the newspapers to turn.
Therefore, a draw appears to be the only result that will allow the same peaceful atmosphere to be maintained at Formello – keeping the run going, but keeping first place at arm’s length.
The fixture should also be an opportunity for Lazio fans to pause and reflect on how far they have come.
On the final day of the 2017/18 season, Inter visited for an infamous match in which Lazio spectacularly collapsed to a 3-2 defeat to drop out of the Champions League places on the final day of the season.
It was an accumulation of all the team’s negative aspects: the mental switch-off at crucial moments, a tendency to bottle big games, and the continuation of their agonising inability to return to Europe’s top club competition.
Now they’re flying high at the top of the table, showing mental grit on a weekly basis and have struck a balance between a solid defence and razor-sharp attack.
Smile, laziali. Life is good right now – regardless of what happens on Sunday.