If a season is judged on close title races or the emergence of surprise title contenders, most leagues haven’t been great. We have seen the re-crowning of perma-champions in France, Germany and Scotland, while Liverpool won the Premier League with seven games to spare. Although La Liga is proving to be a tight two-horse race, there is little surprise as to which two clubs are in that race. Serie A is the one division providing a competitive race and an unlikely challenger as Lazio attempt to wrestle the Scudetto from Juventus.
The Old Lady to Reign?
Juventus have reigned supreme in Italy since the relative decline of the Milan clubs almost a decade ago. They are currently seeking their ninth straight title and hope to land the Champions League crown that has eluded them since 1996. Juventus added the likes of Matthijs De Ligt, Danilo, Aaron Ramsey and Merih Demiral to an already-impressive squad last summer.
The transition from Massimiliano Allegri to Maurizio Sarri was supposed to move the Old Lady to a more entertaining platform, but as Chelsea discovered, Sarri-ball isn’t the easiest system to adopt. Their performances were patchy for much of the season, however, they still went unbeaten until their match against Lazio in December.
Matters turned worse in February with defeats to Napoli and Verona. After that , they only squeaked past the bottom of the table team in SPAL. From the start of the season, Inter were the team most fancied to usurp Juventus. However, Sarri’s team rebounded with a convincing 2-0 win over the Nerazzuri to remain on top as the season was suspended.
Lazio by contrast last won the Scudetto back in 2000. That proved the high point for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s expensive team that included the likes of Pavel Nedved, Juan-Sebastian Veron, Allesandro Nesta and current manager Simone Inzaghi. However, Eriksson departed for England the following season and Lazio’s spending soon caught up with them.
Since then, Lazio have only returned to the Champions League places twice. Last season in particular, Inzaghi’s team finished in eighth; 31 points behind Juventus. The summer transfer window also offered little suggestion of Lazio making a great leap, with right winger Manuel Lazzari their most notable addition. Their start wasn’t great either, with two defeats in their opening five games.
However, Inzaghi stuck with the 3-5-2 system rather than tinkering and Lazio clicked quietly into gear through the autumn. In December, they stunned Italian football by beating Juve 3-1 in Rome. Impressive wins over Napoli and Inter were the other highlights of a run that saw Lazio enter the lockdown 21 league games unbeaten; just a point behind Juve.
The Immobile Show
The key to Lazio’s challenge has been the form of striker Ciro Immobile. The Italy international has been prolific throughout his four years with Lazio. He has totaled 29 goals in 29 games, leading Cristiano Ronaldo by five goals in the golden boot stakes and he finally appears capable of transferring that form to the Azzurri.
Immobile isn’t the only one having a career year: Luis Alberto leads the Serie A in assists with 14. Immobile and Alberto have found able support in the likes of Lazzari, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Felipe Caicedo, while veteran Francesco Acerbi leads a reliable back three. They may not be the star-studded lineup from before, but this Lazio team has proven to be effective.
The horrors of the pandemic found an epicenter in Northern Italy and football’s return has provided a timely boost to a hard hit nation. The restart began by concluding the Coppa Italia, as Sarri was expecting to raise his first piece of silverware for his new club. However, a poor performance in the semifinal against a depleted AC Milan saw Juventus edge to the final where they were beaten on penalties by Napoli.
If Juve’s restart was unconvincing, Lazio’s was a disaster. As Serie A reconvened, they took an early 2-0 lead against fourth-placed Atalanta. Still, they were stunned by a team who continually defy the odds and Lazio were beaten 3-2.
Both teams have since got themselves back in the groove: Juventus have recorded three straight wins over the division’s lesser lights, with Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala back among the goals. Meanwhile, Lazio came from behind to beat both Fiorentina and Torino to keep the gap at the top of the table to a manageable four points
The win for Lazio over Torino came at a cost, as Immobile’s handball earned him a suspension for Saturday’s visit of AC Milan. Milan are not the force of old, but are pushing for Europe. With Juventus playing 14th-placed Torino, Lazio can not afford a slip.
If Lazio can get through the weekend without conceding further ground to Juventus, they do have the easier run-in. After the Torino game, Juventus face a critical week in their season with a trip to the San Siro to face Milan on Tuesday. It will be followed by a clash with in-form Atalanta next Saturday.
If the race does remain close, the date to underline is July 20th, as Lazio will face Juve in Turin. To add to the intrigue, if the title is still on the line on the final day of the season (August 2nd), Lazio will face a tough away game against Napoli, while Juventus host Lazio’s bitter local rivals in Roma.
Juventus remain favorites to claim that ninth consecutive title, as they have one of Europe’s best squads. The pressure on Sarri will be immense, and the biggest weakness on his CV remains his lack of trophies. Having already missed out on the Coppa Italia, losing the title would be a disaster.
Inzaghi has already overachieved this season, but with the title this close, Lazio will be desperate to claim what would the club’s third Scudetto. Whichever way the title goes, Serie A has provided a thrilling title race.
Juventus: Pl 29, Pts 72, GD +34
To Play: Torino (h), AC Milan (a), Atalanta (h), Sassuolo (a), Lazio (h), Udinese (a), Sampdoria (h), Cagliari (a), Roma (h)
Lazio: Pl 29, Pts 68, GD +38
To Play: AC Milan (h), Lecce (a), Sassuolo (h), Udinese (a), Juventus (a), Cagliari (h), Verona (a), Brescia (h), Napoli (a)