When Giovanni Simeone’s deflected shot put Cagliari in front at the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday, a section of the Lazio support was undoubtedly fearing the worst.
The thought of the Biancocelesti surrendering a top four place to rivals Roma recently seemed impossible, laughable. But as five games went by without a win, the Giallorossi were gaining ground.
A sickening thought will have crossed the minds of some Laziali: what if they keep losing? What if Roma did somehow catch them on the final day of the season?
This negativity isn’t an irrational reaction from a Lazio when it comes to Champions League qualification.
Over the 13 years since they last graced European football’s greatest and most lucrative tournament, the capital club has found many painful ways to narrowly miss out on a return.
In 2010/11, they lost fourth place and a playoff spot to Udinese on goal difference. A year later, they managed to come fourth, two points behind the Zebrette – but by then Italy had lost a Champions League place and it was only enough for a Europa League playoff spot.
In 2014/15, Lazio finished third under Stefano Pioli. At the time, that was only enough for a Champions League playoff, which they subsequently lost to Bayer Leverkusen. Try again.
More recently, and most painfully, they collapsed to a 3-2 defeat against Inter on the final day of the 2017/18 season to somehow throw away a top four place due to the head-to-head record between the clubs.
There is, therefore, a long track record of pain when it comes to Lazio and the Champions League proper.
There is still one unlikely set of circumstances that will keep the more pessimistic Aquile fans sweating for a while yet, though.
If Roma were to win the Europa League and Napoli win the Champions League, Italy would end up with six representatives for the 2020/21 tournament.
That’s too many, as there is a maximum of five spots per country, so fourth place in Serie A would then be ‘relegated’ to a Europa League spot instead.
It’s a highly unlikely outcome. The last time Italian clubs won both of Europe’s major prizes was in 1993/94, when AC Milan won the Champions League and Inter triumphed in the UEFA Cup.
Plus, neither Roma nor Napoli are exactly favourites to win their respective tournaments.
Nevertheless, it at least provides Lazio with an extra incentive to claim the runners-up spot they feel they deserve after a season that was nothing short of sensational until their damaging post-break slump.
The Aquile are now one point behind Inter and two behind Atalanta, but they have the friendliest looking run-in of the three.
Simone Inzaghi’s side face Verona (A), Brescia (H) and Napoli (A) in their final three games.
Atalanta and Inter still have to face each other on the final day of the season, meaning at least one of them is guaranteed to drop points, and before then they have some tough fixtures.
Atalanta have Milan (A) and Parma (A) before their final day clash while Inter face Genoa (A) and Napoli (H).
The most encouraging aspect of Lazio’s win over Cagliari, other than what it meant for Champions League qualification, was the level of performance, which was far closer to their pre-break form than we’ve seen so far.
That, combined with an injury list that is mercifully clearing a bit, should give Inzaghi and his men confidence that they can finish this impressive campaign in a position they deserve – and settle the nerves of their more pessimistic supporters.