It’s going to be a long week for Lazio.
The Biancocelesti put in another admirable Champions League performance on Wednesday night to earn a 1-1 draw away to Borussia Dortmund.
In normal circumstances, that would be a result worth savouring, but when the full-time whistle blew there was some frustration lingering in the air that they hadn’t been able to take maximum points.
A string of saves from Roman Burki denied Simone Inzaghi’s side a victory that would’ve secured their progress to the last 16 with a game to spare.
Instead, they must wait for next Tuesday’s visit of Club Brugge to learn their European fate. It’s a simple situation now: avoid defeat in that game and Lazio go through, lose and they’re out.
“There’s a sense of regret because from five matches we’ve won two and drawn three, but we’ve still not qualified,” Inzaghi said after the game.
“We thought that with nine points we would already be in the last 16, something Lazio haven’t achieved for 20 years”.
It’s 21 years, in fact. The last time Lazio reached the knockout stages in European football’s top competition was the same season they won their last Scudetto: 1999/00.
Inzaghi should remember, as he scored nine goals for the Aquile in that campaign.
A lot has changed since then, but it’s easy to understand why the coach feels aggrieved that his team’s fate will depend on a one-off winner-takes-all clash in Rome against the Belgians.
It has been in Europe that Lazio have shown their mettle this season. Going on a five-match unbeaten run, which included a win and a draw against group favourites Dortmund, is no mean feat for a side that hasn’t graced this stage of the Champions League for 13 years.
But Inzaghi had to navigate a period of crisis, securing a 1-1 daw in Brugge despite missing 12 senior players and subsequently missing key players Ciro Immobile, Luis Alberto, Manuel Lazzari, Thomas Strakosha and Lucas Leiva as they earned the same result away to Zenit.
That result against the Belgians may well bolster the Aquile’s confidence ahead of next week, considering it was achieved with a bare-bones team.
Lazio’s injury and Covid-19 crisis has eased recently, but the shock 3-1 defeat to Udinese last weekend suggested that the relentless schedule is proving to be a mental, as well as physical, challenge for the players.
Inzaghi now faces a head-scratching few days to work out how best to rotate his side for Saturday’s Serie A clash with Spezia.
He must strike the right balance of putting out a strong enough side to get a win that will be vital to keeping his side in the hunt domestically, while keeping his key men fresh for next week’s huge European night in Rome.
This is, to his credit, something Inzaghi was doing very well up to the defeat against the Friulani.
After the dismal 3-0 defeat to Sampdoria, the boss steered his depleted side to an eight-match unbeaten run in which they balanced a strong European campaign with a run of three wins and a draw in the league.
On Saturday, it’s up to the coach to prove that the Udinese debacle was no more than a blip, an anomalous result in a season packed with surprises.
Then, it will simply be a case of handling the pressure of the final day against Brugge.