Lazio get their priorities straight to step up Champions League push
Lazio let the side down on Thursday when they became the only Italian club to be eliminated from Europe all season. Serie A sent six teams through to continental quarter-finals for the first time this century, but the Biancocelesti’s defeat to AZ Alkmaar cost the league a clean sweep. Maurizio Sarri pointed to a congested calendar, saying his team was “probably not structurally ready for these competitions”.
Was it that, or did their priorities simply lie elsewhere? In the same breath, Sarri had acknowledged “there’s less energy around the club when it comes to a competition like the Conference League”. He suggested this was something players perceived from the fans, yet he was the one telling reporters before the second leg against Alkmaar that he wanted to win Sunday’s Rome derby more.
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Sarri’s blunt honesty has endeared him to Lazio’s supporters since he arrived in 2021 and so have his results. The derby will always matter in this city, but tensions can only be amplified when your team sit third in the table and your neighbours two points behind. Lazio have qualified for the Champions League once in 15 years. This was not a game to take lightly.
Lazio rotated several starters against Alkmaar and Sarri withdrew others even as they trailed by a single goal in the second half. More important to him than finding an equaliser was to make sure that none of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Mattia Zaccagni or Alessio Romagnoli got stuck on the pitch for 120 minutes if the game got to extra-time. Instead, Alkmaar scored again for a 4-2 aggregate win.
José Mourinho saw his opportunity to land a verbal jab, reminding reporters of Roma’s success winning the inaugural Europa Conference League last year. “Now Uefa will need to spend money transporting the cup,” he said. “It could have stayed here in Rome.”
Sarri claimed not to have heard what was said, though he probably would have laughed if he had. He makes no secret that he enjoys Mourinho, even while pointing out the “big fucking difference between [starting out at] Barcelona and Stia”. The Lazio manager expressed disappointment that his counterpart would be suspended for this game, “because he is part of the show, the spectacle of the derby”.
Mourinho earned a two-game ban when he was expelled for dissent against Cremonese last month, his third red card of the season. Up to that point, curiously, no Roma player had been sent off in Serie A but now, all discipline seemed to go out the window. Marash Kumbulla was sent off in game one of the manager’s suspension, a 4-3 home defeat to Sassuolo. On Sunday, Roger Ibañez followed.
The Brazilian had already cost his team this season’s first derby, giving away possession inside his own penalty area to serve Lazio the only goal of that game. Now he undermined Roma again by collecting two bookings for late challenges in just over half an hour.
An already scrappy match descended into ugliness. Milinkovic-Savic celebrated the decision like a goal, whirling his arms and inciting Lazio’s fans to raise the volume. Roma’s goalkeeping coach, Nuno Santos, sparked a bench-clearing scuffle when he confronted Pedro. Both he and Sarri’s assistant, Marco Ianni, saw red.
Roma dug in. They had survived a 90-minute onslaught away to Real Sociedad on Thursday, earning a 0-0 draw with less than 24% possession, so why not try to do it again? Rui Patricio was scarcely tested before the interval.
As the second half progressed, however, tired legs began to show. Luis Alberto almost deceived the goalkeeper with a swerving shot from outside the box and Pedro got behind the defence on the right before being denied at the near post. Patricio made another brilliant point-blank save from Felipe Anderson, before the flag was raised for offside.
The blue tide could not be held back forever. Another Lazio passing triangle on the left ended with Anderson nudging the ball through to Zaccagni. He took one touch to control and another to move inside before sweeping the ball around the keeper and into the far corner of the net.
No player embodies Sarri’s impact at Lazio better than Zaccagni, signed from Verona for less than €10m after a year on loan. Previously a free-floating No 10 who named Miralem Pjanic and Luka Modric as his inspirations, the manager has moulded him into a direct and punishing wide forward, who cuts in from the left to shoot off his right foot much as Lorenzo Insigne did at Napoli.
His running and quick decision-making were assets last season but Sarri challenged him to go further, saying: “We are always telling [Zaccagni] he needs to attack the space behind the defence more. He needs to go for goal.” This summer, Zaccagni was set a target of scoring double figures for the first time in his career and the strike against Roma was his ninth. He is also, by some measure, the most fouled player in the league, a measure of the panic his runs have sparked in opposing defences.
Why was such a talent left out of the Italy squad to face England, at a time when Roberto Mancini has lamented his scarce attacking options? There is competition for places on the left, with Vincenzo Grifo and Wilfried Gnonto joined by a fit-again Federico Chiesa, but the suspicion is that Zaccagni is still being punished for leaving a training camp prematurely this summer with an injury that the national team’s medical staff felt could have been overcome.
Sarri does not mind one bit. “I can only tell you I was not disappointed,” he said. “[Zaccagni] has been playing every three or four days since 4 January. He needs a few days of rest.”
Sassuolo 1-0 Spezia, Atalanta 2-1 Empoli, Monza 1-1 Cremonese, Salernitana 2-2 Bologna, Udinese 3-1 Milan, Sampdoria 3-1 Verona, Fiorentina 1-0 Lecce, Torino 0-4 Napoli, Lazio 1-0 Roma, Inter 0-1 Juventus
Only after enjoying the moment with his dad. Sunday was Father’s Day in Italy, and Zaccagni had his beside him when he was interviewed by Dazn after the game finished 1-0 to Lazio. “He could see I was nervous during the week and he told me just to keep it calm,” said the player; “Luckily he listened!” said Fabio Zaccagni, giving his son a squeeze on the arm.
It was a rare tender moment on an ill-tempered evening in Serie A. There had been two more red cards after the final whistle in Rome, Adam Marusic and Bryan Cristante sanctioned for squaring up to one another during a post-game melee. The Derby d’Italia, up in Milan, would see acrimony of its own after Juventus won with a goal that ought to have been disallowed for a handball by Adrien Rabiot.
All of which was good news for Lazio. They finished the weekend second in the table, and crucially five points clear of fifth-placed Roma. With only one loss in their last 11 league games and 16 clean sheets this season, Sarri’s team are demonstrating a reliability that will make them difficult to overtake.