If anyone deserves a bit of festive cheer, it’s Simone Inzaghi.
It’s remarkable that the Biancocelesti boss has any of those luscious locks left on his head and hasn’t torn them out in frustration by now, because even by the standards of this most unpredictable and disrupted of seasons, he’s had a rough ride.
The 44-year-old came in for some criticism when Serie A returned after lockdown last season, as his side slipped from one point off top to fourth place.
He struggled to effectively rotate his squad and manage the energy levels of his key players as Lazio’s form nosedived.
The Roman club lost half of their league matches after the break, six from 12, having previously been defeated just twice all season – and not since September 2019.
But while the young coach hasn’t had much more luck with selection issues this season, he’s displayed evidence of personal development with the way he has handled the situation.
DEPLETED BUT DETERMINED
It’s not just that Lazio have missed players through the coronavirus or injuries, but that many of the absentees made up the spine of the team that produced such a stunning run of form last season.
Inzaghi’s first-choice XI in 2019/20 looked like this: Strakosha; Felipe, Acerbi, Radu; Lazzari, Alberto, Leiva, Milinkovic-Savic, Lulic; Correa, Immobile.
Of those players, there is only one who has been available for every game this season: the unstoppable Francesco Acerbi. Lazio haven’t fielded that starting XI since the 1-1 Rome Derby draw on 26 January.
Some of them have rarely featured, particularly captain Senad Lulic (0 apps), goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha and defenders Stefan Radu and Luiz Felipe (5 apps each), while the absences of key men Ciro Immobile, Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic more recently left huge voids to fill.
However, Inzaghi has managed to turn things around since a dismal 3-0 defeat to Sampdoria on 17 October.
Since then, Lazio have played two games per week between Serie A and the Champions League, although an international break provided respite for some players earlier this month.
In that period, the Biancocelesti are undefeated in eight matches, taking them within a hair’s breadth of the Champions League last 16 and two points off the top four in Serie A.
That run has included five wins and three draws: one against Juventus and the other two away to Club Brugge and Zenit with a depleted squad.
Inzaghi hasn’t been able to pick the same starting XI for two consecutive matches throughout this run, and has often made sweeping changes to his side, be it from necessity or choice.
But the level of their performances has for the most part been consistent, culminating in a 3-1 thumping of Zenit earlier this week that was the closest we’ve come in nine months to seeing the fearless, swashbuckling side of the pre-coronavirus age.
LIKE NIGHT AND DAY
You only need to look back at Lazio’s Europa League campaign of last term to appreciate the improvement.
This time last year, Lazio’s league form remained superb, but when Inzaghi called on a rotated team to get the job done against Rennes, Cluj and Celtic in the Europa League they failed spectacularly, crashing out at the group stage with four defeats from six games.
The argument that Lazio didn’t possess enough strength in depth or that Inzaghi didn’t have the wherewithal to effectively rotate his available players only became louder when they flopped when faced with a congested fixture list at the end of the domestic season.
Their recent run, therefore, shouldn’t be dismissed. It is evidence of development and improvement from the year before, and all without a full-strength team available.
But back to that festive cheer. Milinkovic-Savic has returned after recovering from Covid-19 along with fellow midfielder Gonzalo Escalante, while Felipe is nearing a return.
There was one blow this week when Vedat Muriqi picked up an injury that could rule him out for two weeks, while Lulic will need a while longer before getting back on the pitch.
But Inzaghi finally has a strong and fit pool of players to pick from just in time for a run of games that could leave the Aquile in a strong position come Christmas.
They host Udinese on Sunday before league games against Spezia (A), Verona (H) and Benevento (A). In between there is a trip to Borussia Dortmund and their final game of the group stage at home to Club Brugge.
If they can continue their hot streak through this period, it’s likely to lift them further up the standings ahead of two massive games in the week before Christmas: Napoli (H) and AC Milan (A).
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