8:23 AM GMT
James HorncastleItaly writer
Giancarlo Inzaghi doesn’t smoke Monday to Friday. When the weekend comes around, though, he draws the blinds, pours himself a digestif and lights up. Inzaghi Sr. puts the football on and goes through around 20 cigarettes. “Don’t tell the boys,” he said. “I suffer more now they’re both coaches.”
It looks like their mother Marina has had a word with them because Filippo and Simone are doing everything in their power to make watching football as stress free as possible for papa. Rather than nursing an amaro (liqueur), Giancarlo could be excused for popping open the occasional bottle of champagne. Superstition will prevent him from doing so and, as it’s only January, celebration would be premature. That said, the Inzaghi brothers can’t stop winning — neither of them having dropped a single point since the end of November — and it’d be a shame not to enjoy the moment (Serie A is streamed live on ESPN in the United States).
A year on from his dismissal by Bologna, Pippo is fast resurrecting his career with Benevento down in Serie B. The Witches have the Cadetto under their spell and are on for a record-breaking promotion back to the top flight. It’s hard to see anyone getting close enough to douse them with a metaphorical bucket of water and cause the kind of meltdown needed to provoke the evaporation of a 12-point lead. “I’m madly in love with this profession,” Pippo explained. “I like everything about it. I even adore the sacrifices you have to make if you can call them that. For me where you coach doesn’t matter. Serie A is the same as Serie C to me. All I ask is to do what I love.”
A few strands of grey had started to appear in Pippo’s raven-black hair over the course of his last stint among the elite. His younger brother Simone wears it better. Success will do that for you, I suppose, to say nothing of the three years between them. Lazio, who take on Sampdoria on Saturday (9 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN ), recently celebrated their 120th anniversary with a club record-breaking 10th straight league win, beating the run of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s champions in 2000. Posed the question: what does this team lack to challenge Juventus and Inter? Simone, wearing a shirt the style of the one in which they last won the Scudetto, replied: “Not much.”
Inzaghi could have played the expectation-management game and told everyone to keep their feet on the ground and implored the papers not to get too carried away. His answer instead spoke to a belief that, for this group of players, the time is now. Three and a half years into the job, the bar is being raised.
Lazio’s secret is continuity and culture. They have had the same coach and, more or less, the same players for the past three and a half years. There have been some tweaks of position here and there, notably how high up the pitch Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto now play. Other than that, the system has not changed. The players know it inside out and know each other like the back of their hands.
Every season has built on the last. Runners-up in the Coppa Italia final in 2017, Lazio then won the Super Cup. They returned to the cup final last season and this time brought the trophy home. Another Super Cup followed last month. Aside from Juventus, no Italian team has won more silverware in the past eight years than the Biancocelesti. Creases have been ironed out, as Lazio have moved on from Stefan de Vrij and Felipe Anderson. Crucially, Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto did not start the season with their heads turned, pondering on what might have been had owner Claudio Lotito not set prohibitively high asking prices for the pair of them.
After Saturday’s victory against Napoli, Lazio’s match winner Ciro Immobile said: “Mentally something just clicked that makes us never give up.” That something, according to Inzaghi, happened in preseason. Perhaps it came from triumphing in the cup. Watching his players, he could tell they carried themselves differently. The look in their eyes was one of conviction, hitherto fleeting, now ever-present. Lazio walloped Sampdoria 4-0 on opening night and deserved to beat Roma in the derby, hitting the woodwork four times. Bogey team SPAL then surprised them, winning a game Lazio should have had wrapped up by half-time.
That result in Ferrara seemed to indicate this team was still wildly inconsistent and prone to sudden collapses, like against FC Salzburg (when 5-2 up on aggregate) in the 2018 Europa League quarterfinals and Inter that same year in the league (the time Inzaghi’s team threw away qualification for the Champions League on the final day of the season despite being 2-1 up with 15 minutes to go).
The manner of the response to that SPAL loss inspires confidence in Lazio. This team now has a mental toughness that distinguishes it from recent years. Rather than displaying vulnerability late in games Lazio are now finishing stronger and bending them to their will. They have scored 13 goals in the final 15 minutes, more than anyone else in Serie A, and they are not garbage-time strikes. Tied 1-1 going into stoppage time against Sassuolo and Brescia, Felipe Caicedo and Immobile respectively turned one point into three with last-gasp goals. Cagliari have also still yet to recover from entering the 90th minute 1-0 up against Lazio only to lose 2-1. As Milinkovic recently posted on Instagram, “there are two certainties in life: Death and Lazio never giving up.”
Midfielder Danilo Cataldi claims the mentality shift came only recently. Pushed around by Atalanta at the Olimpico, Lazio found themselves 3-0 down at half-time. “In the dressing room, after that first half, we all looked at each other trying to stay calm with the intention of getting back into the game. We did it (Lazio drew 3-3) and that gave us a spark. Now we always believe in what we do, right until the last second. It’s no coincidence that we’re winning a lot of games late.”
One of the factors in that is Lazio’s unheralded depth. Immobile’s backup Caicedo has come on and scored in the 90th, 93rd and 97th minutes. Jony crossed for his winner in Sardinia, while Cataldi’s sensational free kick in Saudi Arabia killed off Juventus in the Super Cup. This particular detail contrasts Lazio to Inter, who are still yet to get a single goal from one of their substitutes this season in Serie A. The supporting cast has been magnificent and, hard as it may be to pull the spotlight away from Lazio’s leading men, those on the fringes deserve a headline of their own. Inzaghi’s man management must be good to coax performances out of players who know the starting XI is set and that, but for an injury or a suspension, starts are going to be few and far between.
Immobile leads the scoring charts not only in Italy but in Europe and could end the season with the Golden Shoe. His winner against Napoli ensured he joins Gabriel Batistuta, Giuseppe Meazza and Gunnar Nordahl as only the fourth player to score 20 league goals in four consecutive seasons in Serie A. Partner Joaquin Correa is one of the league’s most elegant attackers and has the potential to become a superstar if he learns how to finish. Luis Alberto has 12 assists in 17 games, more than anyone in Europe’s top five leagues apart from Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne.
Milinkovic, Serie A’s reigning Midfielder of the Year, is approximating his best again and now seems more deserving of that prize than he was last year while Lucas, Lazio’s player of the season last term, continues to be a steady hand. Francesco Acerbi finished qualifying as one of Italy’s two starting centre-backs and goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha is quietly one of Serie A’s best. The team has few weaknesses aside from the occasional uncertainty at right centre-back, the age of Stefan Radu and Senad Lulic, and you wonder if Caicedo and Correa would be able to pick up the slack consistently in the event of an Immobile injury.
Lazio have a swagger that comes from beating Milan at the San Siro for the first time in 30 years, ending a bad run against Napoli (Inzaghi had lost five and drawn one with them) and of course defeating Juventus 3-1 twice in the space of a fortnight.
All considered, Giancarlo Inzaghi needn’t reach for a stiff drink on weekends. The cigarettes can stay in the carton. You’d forgive him for watching Lazio and Benevento’s games with a pipe and slippers.