It would’ve taken an optimistic Lazio fan to predict that the step up to Champions League football would look as effortless as this.
Things haven’t exactly been easy for the Roman club in their first campaign in the competition for 13 years, as injuries and positive coronavirus tests left them with depleted options for away trips to Club Brugge and Zenit Saint Petersburg.
But Tuesday’s dominant, swashbuckling 3-1 victory over Zenit left the Biancocelesti tantalisingly close to the Champions League knockout rounds.
It’s a stage they have only graced once in their history, during the Scudetto-winning 1999/00 season.
There is now a four-point gap between Lazio in second and Club Brugge in third in Group F, meaning one win will be enough for the Aquile from their remaining two group games away to Borussia Dortmund and at home against the Belgians. They might not even need that much.
The win over the Russians makes Lazio unbeaten in four Champions League games – also for the first time in 20 years – and stretched their overall run without defeat to eight matches.
The confidence and control of Tuesday’s win over Zenit suggested something more important than any figures can show though: Lazio have their swagger back.
Simone Inzaghi’s side were knocked sideways by the coronavirus-enforced break at the end of last season, struggling with a packed fixture schedule as their Scudetto push collapsed.
While it’s still early in the season, the evidence so far suggests the operation has been a success.
Inzaghi has had to deal with injuries to Thomas Strakosha, Stefan Radu, Luiz Felipe, Manuel Lazzari, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Lucas Leiva, Luis Alberto, Senad Lulic, Gonzalo Escalante and Ciro Immobile among others this season, often many of them simultaneously.
He travelled to Brugge with only 13 first-team players available. He’s been without his star striker, captain, best midfielders and first-choice defence and goalkeeper.
But the coach has learned the lessons of last season, when he struggled to effectively rotate his squad. It’s easy to forget that Inzaghi is still just 44 and this is in his first coaching job, and only his fifth full season. He’s still figuring things out and coming up against new challenges.
What is truly impressive is that Lazio have managed to come through such a tumultuous period not just unscathed, but improved.
They’ve kept the results ticking over in Serie A to stay within six points of first place, and put themselves within touching distance of their European objective.
Last season’ remarkable 21-match unbeaten run wasn’t always about blowing teams away. It was often the reward of a winning mentality and an unshakeable belief that the result would come even if they had to wait until the final minute.
Lazio have proved over the last two months that this fighting spirit has gone nowhere, and Inzaghi has almost got his full squad back together now ahead of a friendlier-looking run of league games against Udinese, Spezia, Verona and Benevento.
His team had its tail up against Zenit, dripping with confidence in a manner we haven’t seen since the peak of their 2019/20 form. It’s a sight that could strike fear into the hearts of their Serie A rivals.