Alasdair Mackenzie Date:9th December 2020 at 3:28pm
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Life’s a game of inches, and so is football.

Ok, you got me. This is a line from ‘Any Given Sunday’ and refers to what the Americans call football.

But it can equally apply to the version on this side of the Atlantic. Just ask Lazio.

The heart-stopping, nerve-shredding ending to the Biancocelesti’s decisive Champions League group game against Club Brugge on Tuesday underlined the enormous impact that the smallest of margins can have.

If Charles De Ketelaere had kept his stoppage-time shot slightly lower, today would be spent wading through the wreckage of a spectacular collapse that sent Lazio crashing out of the competition.

We would be talking about ‘blackouts’ again. The word was used to describe Lazio somehow throwing away a 5-2 aggregate lead against Salzburg in the 2017/18 Europa League quarter-final second leg with 35 minutes remaining, to lose 6-5.

It was back again when they surrendered a 2-1 lead in the last 12 minutes against Inter on the final day of the Serie A season that year to lose 3-2 and therefore surrender a top four spot.

But this time, De Ketelaere’s powerful effort cannoned off the crossbar and bounced back out to safety.

Moments later the full-time whistle blew, and relief washed over the blue side of the Italian capital like a tidal wave.

Make no mistake, there should be big concerns about Lazio’s second half performance against the Belgians. They went in at half time with a 2-1 lead and their opponents reduced to 10 men, but were erratic and wracked by nerves as they retreated into their own half after the break.

It was a meek display that did little to raise confidence that the ghosts of 2017/18 have been completely laid to rest.

Lazio only needed to avoid defeat against Brugge at the Stadio Olimpico to progress, but found themselves surrendering a dominant half time position to concede an equaliser and then rely on inches of inaccuracy to get through.

It wouldn’t have just been a collapse, it would’ve been the most spectacular and unforgivable of all.

But it wasn’t. That is what the history books will record, and even those laziali left furious by their team’s performance will now be coming to terms with what they have achieved: a place in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time in 21 years.

It was ultimately no less than they deserved for their form throughout the group stage. Lazio have saved their best form this season for Europe, particularly the 3-1 home wins over Borussia Dortmund and Zenit, and end Group F in second place and boasting an unbeaten record.

That is a remarkable achievement for a side that hasn’t featured at this level for 13 years, particularly as Simone Inzaghi had to deal with enormous selection problems for the trips to Brugge and Russia due to a Covid-19 outbreak and injuries.

The significance of Lazio’s achievement is slowly sinking in. They have only reached the knockout stages of the Champions League once before, and that was in the year they last won the Scudetto, 1999/00.

They did make it to the second group stage in 2000/01, but since then the Aquile have only featured three times in the Champions League proper, failing on any of those occasions to achieve what they did on Tuesday night.

It is a fitting reward for the Lazio side Inzaghi has built, the strongest there has been since the title-winning team he was part of as a player.

In Ciro Immobile, they have a talismanic leader who continues to prove all his doubters wrong.

His penalty against Brugge made him the first Italian since Alessandro Del Piero in 2008/09 to score at least five goals in the Champions League. The only Lazio player to have done better is his coach Inzaghi, who netted nine times in the 1999/00 run.

Lazio’s European performances – and the girth of the Olimpico crossbar – will also give the club a significant financial boost. Their success so far is estimated to have earned the capital club around €45m, not including the market pool share that is yet to be calculated.

A place in the last 16 was worth €9.5m. A game of inches indeed.