The 2017/18 Serie A season had the potential to fizzle out. Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli had threatened to end Juventus’ era of dominance, only to stumble in the final weeks. Crotone promised to pull off a second successive great escape, but eventually fell short and were relegated to Serie B.
There had been a lack of drama on the final weekend. Yet there was still hope that this could be rectified. The last game of the campaign pitted Lazio and Inter against each other. A classic fixture, but one that was particularly significant on this occasion, as both sides targeted the final Champions League spot.
It had been a season of near misses for Lazio. Under the tutelage of Simone Inzaghi, they had impressed for much of the year, but were left with little to show for their efforts. In February, they had gone toe-to-toe with Milan in the Coppa Italia semi-finals, before being eliminated in the cruellest way, 5-4 on penalties.
Six weeks later, further heartbreak occurred in the Europa League. Having led 5-2 on aggregate at one stage, Lazio capitulated, conceding four unanswered goals in a 20-minute period in the second leg to crash out of the competition. Still, this game at home to Inter offered the team a chance at redemption. It was their chance to prove that they could deliver when it mattered most.
Meanwhile, Inter’s campaign had been difficult to comprehend. They were undefeated in their opening 16 league matches, appearing poised to launch an unexpected bid for the title. Then things fell apart. The side failed to win any of their next seven domestic contests, which included five consecutive draws. Their title challenge was over and they began to drop down the table.
Despite picking up some heavy wins in the run-in over Cagliari and Udinese, a momentum-killing loss was never far away. Juventus pinched a last-gasp victory in late April, and Inter’s bogey team Sassuolo clinched a 2-1 win on the penultimate weekend to leave Luciano Spalletti’s men outside the top four ahead of the final matchday.
The stage was set. The equation was simple. Inter had to go to Rome on the final Sunday and win. Nothing else would suffice. Could they do it, or would Lazio return to the Champions League for the first time since 2007?
These types of games can often be cagey, with players not wanting to make mistakes. Luckily for neutrals, this one certainly was not. The hosts started brightly. In the opening minutes they created a big chance, with Senad Lulic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic linking up cleverly down the left-hand side before the latter fired in a dangerous cross. Unfortunately for Lazio, the player on the end of the cross was defender Luiz Felipe, who leant back and fired his close-range effort well over.
An early warning for Inter, but one that they did not heed. Moments later, Lulic and Milinkovic-Savic were in the thick of the action once more. Lulic’s inch-perfect ball was met by the Serbian midfielder, whose header was expertly tipped away by Samir Handanovic. Inter were all over the place. The breakthrough seemed to be imminent.
Indeed, it was. When it came, it was far from pretty. Milinkovic-Savic took a looping cross on his chest, and with his back to goal cushioned a pass into the path of Adam Marusic. Closed down by two defenders, Marusic struck the ball as hard as he could, and hoped. His shot deflected off Ivan Perisic’s face, and skidded into the bottom corner.
Inter were firmly on the backfoot, but were offered a way back into the game almost immediately. A misplaced Stefan Radu pass was intercepted, leaving Mauro Icardi bearing down on goal. Having scored 28 goals across the season, the final outcome appeared inevitable. Instead, Icardi fluffed his lines, skewing his shot horribly wide.
A major let-off for Lazio, yet they were still dangerous at the other end. Inter could not keep Milinkovic-Savic quiet, as the 23-year-old struck the post with a free-kick. It was only a matter of time until another goal arrived.
Against the run of play, it went to Inter. Marcelo Brozovic’s corner was flicked towards the back post and met by an onrushing Danilo D’Ambrosio. His first attempt was saved, but the Italian full-back reacted quickest and scooped the ball beyond Thomas Strakosha at the second time of asking. Inter were level.
Not for long, though. Four minutes before the interval, Lazio broke at pace. Lulic produced a delightful through ball to set Felipe Anderson away. Despite being closed down by his international teammate, Joao Miranda, the Brazilian forward kept his cool and left Handanovic with no chance. Lazio were deservedly ahead. It looked a long way back for Inter.
If Inter were to pull this off, there would have to be drama. There would have to be controversy. They might even need a bit of luck. Chances came at both ends, with Perisic and Felipe Anderson going close, but heading into the final quarter of an hour, Lazio remained in pole position. It was at this point that chaos ensued.
First, Inter were awarded a penalty. Brozovic’s corner was deflected onto the arm of Milinkovic-Savic, leading to the referee pointing to the spot. However, after consulting with the pitchside monitor, he overturned his decision. Was this a sign? Was this going to be Lazio’s night?
Maybe not. With 12 minutes to go, the referee gave another penalty. This time there was no doubt, as Stefan de Vrij chopped down Icardi. The Argentine striker picked himself up and netted his spot-kick, setting up a grandstand finish.
Less than a minute later, the game took another turn in Inter’s favour. Lulic inexplicably brought down Brozovic and was rightly shown a second yellow card. Lazio were going to have to see out the final stages of the match with ten men.
They lasted just a further two minutes. Once again, the pivotal moment came from a set-piece. Brozovic’s delivery was met by Matias Vecino, who powered his header into the far corner, sparking wild celebrations in the away end. Inter had done it.
There was still time for a second yellow card, as Lazio defender Patric was sent from the substitutes’ bench for protesting. I Biancocelesti could have no one to blame but themselves, though. Just like in Salzburg, they had blown it.
As the final whistle blew, Inter rejoiced. They had rescued their season, just. For Lazio, it was another tough loss to stomach.
Goals, penalties, red cards, individual brilliance and catastrophic mistakes. This game had it all. It was a fitting end to an unpredictable season.
Words by: Sam Brookes. @sambrookes3177