Lazio were late to the party. By the time they stepped onto the pitch in Bergamo on Wednesday evening, every Serie A side bar the two Roman clubs had experienced their first taste of post-lockdown football.
Nervous biancocelesti fans were aware that a win was required to maintain a one-point gap to leaders Juventus, and that victory wouldn’t be easily obtained against a free-scoring Atalanta side that battered Sassuolo 4-1 on their return.
Things couldn’t have started much better for Simone Inzaghi’s side. They went 2-0 up inside 11 minutes thanks to a Marten de Roon own goal and a Sergej Milinkovic-Savic thunderbolt, while Ciro Immobile missed a couple of chances to extend their advantage even further.
But after a ferocious opening 30 minutes, Lazio’s energy levels fell off a cliff. They were pinned back in their own half and remained there.
Pre-match concerns about Jony’s defending were justified when he gave opposite number Hans Hateboer all the time in the world to pick out Robin Gosens with a cross. The German headed in, and from then on a turnaround seemed inevitable.
A Ruslan Malinovskyi missile and Jose Luis Palomino header after the break helped Atalanta overturn a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 – revenge for Lazio’s comeback from 3-0 down to 3-3 in their meeting back in October.
The result ended the Aquile’s club record 21-game unbeaten run in Serie A, and immediately set off a chain reaction of punters writing off their Scudetto chances.
While that seems a little rash with another 11 rounds left to play, including a head-to-head meeting between the Romans and Maurizio Sarri’s uninspiring Juve, one fundamental issue was brought to light in stark fashion in Bergamo; Lazio’s lack of squad depth.
Luck wasn’t on their side going into the game. Losing three starters to injury – Luiz Felipe, Lucas Leiva and captain Senad Lulic – was a big blow, particularly considering the balance and leadership that the latter two offer.
Adam Marusic is an important rotation player and his injury forced Inzaghi to put his faith in Jony. Youngsters Bobby Adekanye and Raul Moro, who could’ve provided some energy and thrust from the bench, were also ruled out.
When Danilo Cataldi and Joaquin Correa were forced off with niggles early in the second half, Inzaghi’s options soon looked threadbare.
The players were exhausted, fighting against a torrent of Atalanta pressure with muscles that were clearly aching from the exertion.
Inzaghi was left in a difficult position. His key attacking players, playmaker Luis Alberto and top scorer Ciro Immobile, weren’t playing well. Milinkovic-Savic was tired.
Felipe Caicedo and Marco Parolo had already been introduced by the time Malinovskyi equalised, leaving the coach with few remaining ways to shift the momentum. In the end, he made a triple substitution and brought on Bastos, Jordan Lukaku and Andre Anderson.
Bastos has developed into a trusted member of the squad but, as a centre-back, wasn’t likely to change the game – despite his occasional eye for a spectacular goal.
Lukaku and Anderson have played just 149 minutes of football between them this season. It was always a long shot that they would change the game, but where else could Inzaghi go?
His only other options were two goalkeepers, three Primavera players, towering centre-back Denis Vavro, and wing-back Djavan Anderson, who has played 29 minutes in 2019/20.
In comparison, Gian Piero Gasperini was able to call on Luis Muriel, Josip Ilicic and Timothy Castagne from his bench, while he still had experienced options like Mattia Caldara and Adrien Tameze to go to if needed.
Lazio’s lack of quality in depth is no secret, but the defeat to Atalanta highlighted just how crucial it will be for their big names to perform and fringe players to step up for the rest of the season.
Inzaghi simply doesn’t have the options available to him to adequately replace the likes of Alberto, Milinkovic-Savic or Immobile.
The star trio won’t be able to play every minute as the games come thick and fast, so the coach’s ability to judge rotation will be what makes or breaks Lazio’s season finale.
The visit of Fiorentina to Rome on Saturday will be crucial. Judging by what we’ve seen in Serie A so far, Lazio should be a bit sharper and more comfortable after their first 90 minutes. But so should La Viola, who returned with a disappointing 1-1 draw against rock-bottom Brescia.
At the time of writing, it looks likely that Lazio’s list of absentees will be even bigger on Saturday, with Cataldi and potentially Stefan Radu and Correa joining the five who missed the trip to Bergamo.
Fiorentina have issues of their own, with Federico Chiesa, former Lazio defender Martin Caceres and coach Beppe Iachini all suspended for the Stadio Olimpico clash.
Lazio’s resources are being tested more than ever before. Now is the time for the players who have spent all season looking in from the outside to make an impact. They have been waiting for an opportunity – they must seize it.
As strange as it is to say, it could well be these dark horses – from the talented but raw Andre Anderson to the enigmatic Lukaku and underwhelming Vavro – who save Lazio’s Scudetto bid.
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