What a difference a win can make. You could almost feel the sighs of relief breezing through your window on Thursday night in Rome, as a 2-1 victory for Lazio over Cagliari secured a top four finish.
Last week, I noted the improvements seen in the 0-0 draw against Udinese. The display during the 2-1 defeat to Juventus that followed was also encouraging despite the result, considering the ludicrous list of absences facing Simone Inzaghi.
Regardless, Lazio went into the clash with the Sardinians without a win in five matches.
Some of the more pessimistic supporters were even starting to glance over their shoulder towards Roma, creeping up behind them in fifth.
Those pessimists will have had their heads in their hands when Giovanni Simeone put the visitors in front just before half time, but the comeback that followed had all the hallmarks of a classic pre-break 2019/20 Lazio performance.
Lazio played at a good tempo, moving the ball quickly into dangerous areas and putting the visiting defence under pressure.
There were uneasy moments; Joao Pedro’s superb early free-kick didn’t count because he hadn’t realised it was indirect, Simeone missed a free header with the goal gaping, and the Argentine then gave the visitors a half-time lead.
But if it wasn’t for an astonishing performance from Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno, the game would’ve been wrapped up by the break.
His saves on Manuel Lazzari, Luis Alberto and above all Ciro Immobile in the first half were sensational – and another two stunning stops followed to deny the latter pair later on.
Lazio were relentless in attack, forcing 10 saves from Cragno from their 16 shots on goal, one of which came back out off the post, and dominating 60 per cent possession.
RACES AND RECORDS
Lazio didn’t let their heads drop after going behind, as they fought back to record their seventh comeback victory of season – the highest number in Europe.
Immobile’s return to form in the last two games against Juve and Cagliari has played a big part in his team finding their swagger again, and the striker is now up to 31 goals for the season in Serie A – taking him clear of Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the capocannoniere charts.
Additionally, Lazio reached 72 points to equal their Serie A record. It is the same amount they finished with in 2017/18 under Inzaghi, and in the Scudetto-winning 1999/00 campaign under Sven-Goran Eriksson, although at that time it was only a 34-game season.
The feelgood factor is back, although there will be no getting away from the feeling that it’s too little too late.
With three matches remaining, Lazio can still take the runners-up spot. It would be their highest league finish since winning the Scudetto 20 years ago, and an accomplishment worthy of the season they were having before football was interrupted.
It’s not what they had hoped for, and Juventus’ pained limp to the Scudetto will have fans wondering what could have been.
But a strong finish to the season is still important for several reasons.
Firstly, a run to second place would allow this team to end the campaign on a high, reminding everyone of the tremendous season they’ve had and changing the narrative around them, which has become rather negative lately.
Secondly, moving out of fourth place would ease the minds of pessimistic fans who are worried about the unlikely scenario of Napoli winning the Champions League and Roma winning the Europa League, which would strip fourth place of a Champions League spot.
Finally, with so little time between seasons this year, the momentum produced by finishing well could easily carry into next season. It could motivate players and excite them for what’s to come next, while making the club an even more attractive proposition in Igli Tare’s recruitment drive.
It was clear what a return to winning ways, and the assurance of a top four finish, meant to this team as they posed under an empty Curva Nord for a celebratory photo after the game on Thursday.
But they’re not done yet – there’s more history to make in the coming weeks.
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