It was billed not just as the biggest game of the weekend, but as one of the biggest games of the season.
Lazio’s clash with Inter promised to provide us with the greatest hint yet of which team is most likely to challenge Juventus for the league title this season.
One point separated the two teams. It was second against third. The Stadio Olimpico was sold out, and the game had caught the imagination of the wider football public outside of Italy.
— ForzaItalianFootball (@SerieAFFC) February 16, 2020
In short, it was an occasion that demanded a big performance from the big players. And ultimately, one stood head and shoulders above the rest: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
It soon became clear that the Serbian was in the mood, simply from tracking his body language.
The midfielder wanted the ball at every opportunity. He would scream for it from the other side of the pitch, throwing his arms up in the air to make his availability clear. He would chastise players for failing to give him the ball when he wanted it.
Milinkovic-Savic is hard to stop when he possesses the combination that he had on Sunday: the hunger to make it his night, and a full tank of energy after a week off through suspension.
After just nine minutes he unleashed a howitzer of a shot from distance that almost cracked the crossbar with its power, leaving Daniele Padelli rooted to the spot.
He drove Lazio forward. He helped relieve pressure in the defensive phase. He strung passes together, won headers, provided a target for long balls.
The goal itself was a thing of beauty, providing a timely reminder that despite his frame, the 24-year-old’s game is as much about brain as it is about brawn.
Receiving the ball in a crowded penalty box, with Inter yet to clear their lines from a corner, Milinkovic-Savic showed remarkable vision and close control to negotiate the ball into a pocket of space and the composure to send it down a corridor where it could find its way into the net through a crowd of limbs.
Just like the win against Juventus in December, when the Serbian scored a spectacular goal, he was the standout performer when he was needed most.
Lazio are no flat-track bullies, and neither are their star players. They have learned over the last few years together that they are capable of beating anyone in this country.
Now they have the confidence that they are going to do just that.
Young lives up to his name
Congratulations to anybody who placed a bet on Ashley Young being the first goalscorer.
The wing-back isn’t a prolific player by any stretch of the imagination, nor does his role demand that he should be. He scored just 19 goals in 261 games for Manchester United.
But his strike against Lazio was well taken and well deserved, helping underline the new lease of life the Englishman appears to have enjoyed since arriving on the peninsula in January.
Young earned praise for providing a neat assist with a cross on his debut against Cagliari, and he has already begun to change the mind of the most cynical Inter fans about what he can offer.
This was arguably his best game yet, as he provided the goal before an impressive charge into the box in the second half that was only halted by a well-timed Luiz Felipe tackle, and his cross would’ve provided the assist for a Lautaro Martinez equaliser, had the striker been onside.
Young may be 34 years old, but this is an old dog willing – and clearly capable – of learning new tricks.