On September 25, Lazio lost their second game in the opening five league matches, falling to a 1-0 defeat to a new-look Inter side.
It would prove to be their final league defeat of the calendar year. Almost five months on, Le Aquile have risen to within a point of Inter, and on Sunday evening, they go toe-to-toe with I Nerazzurri in a top-of-the-table six-pointer. But how did we get here?
It’s been somewhat of a Scudetto monopoly in Italy over the past eight years, with top dogs Juventus hoovering up title after title. But finally, a new challenger has entered the ring. Well – make that two.
Almost a decade has passed since Inter last climbed to the Serie A summit under the Special One, but since then the Italian giants have rarely threatened powerhouses Juve for success. But I Nerazzurri went all out in the summer to rectify this drought, and the arrival of serial winner Antonio Conte has brought a new mental strength to the Milan side.
After a lightning start – and a winter wobble – ?Inter are back on song, and having invested heavily once again in the January transfer window, Conte’s side looks far more balanced across the pitch.
The team possesses bags of goals in ?Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, and the winter signing of ?Christian Eriksen will provide the spark needed to eke out wins in the tighter matches. At the back, Stefan de Vrij, Milan Skriniar and Alessandro Bastoni form a fierce barrier in front of the brick wall Samir Handanovic.
But if Conte’s warriors want to do battle with the Old Lady for that top spot, they’ll have to get past the true underdogs of the title race first.
Across in the Italian capital, something special is on the brink of eruption.
Breaking clear of the chasing pack and firmly solidifying their place in the final sprint to success, SS Lazio have emerged from the fog as genuine title contenders. Simone Inzaghi’s men have gone on an incredible 17-game unbeaten run, and now find themselves only a point behind joint-leaders Inter and Juve.
Le Aquile are a fun and exciting team to watch, with Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic feeding Serie A’s irrepressible top-scorer Ciro Immobile, who has notched an unbelievable 25 goals in 23 matches.
If Inter’s decade dry spell has been tough on supporters, spare a thought for the Lazio faithful, who will be celebrating 20 years without title success at the end of this season. Or will they?
Lazio host Inter on Sunday night in what may prove to be a straight shootout for a swing at the king of Italy, Juventus, in this title race. Victory for the in-form Rome club would see them leapfrog their opponents for a place in the top two, and depending on I Bianconeri’s result against Brescia, Inzaghi’s side could be top of the league by the end of the evening.
But while this Lazio team is full of attacking vibrancy and a relentless energy, there still remains an air of naivety and inexperience at the highest level throughout the squad. A title race is a gruelling pressure-cooker, waiting to explode at any given moment.
And no one knows this better than Conte.
Although Inter have been known to stumble and crumble at the final hurdle in recent years, their new boss, quite simply, has not. The ?ex-Chelsea man was brought in to provide a new steel both on and off the field, and this has never been more evident than in their derby triumph.
Trailing 2-0 at half-time to bitter rivals ?Milan, I Nerazzurri’s title hopes were hanging in the balance. But an inspired team talk from their coach injected some vim and vigour into the mis-firing stars, and Inter ran out 4-2 winners in one of the games of the season.
Their reward? A trip to the most in-form team in Italy. Inter have fond memories of facing Lazio at Stadio Olimpico, most notably in May 2018, when the pair faced off in a winner-takes-all clash for a spot in the Champions League.
Inter snatched a dramatic 3-2 win on the final day of the season, coming from behind as Lazio had two men sent off and imploded before a stunned home crowd.
It was proof of just how far Le Aquile had come, but how much further they had to go to consider themselves on a par with the league’s elite. Less than two years later, and Inzaghi and co face another trial by fire.
Only the potential prize on offer is much grander this time round, and the stakes are unequivocally higher.
Victory for Inter would help them retain top spot for another week, and – more importantly – open up a four-point gap over Sunday’s hosts. It wouldn’t be the end of the race for Lazio, but it would be a serious psychological blow to a team running on momentum.
For the victor, the minor matter of the big bad boss awaits. And both teams are ready for that final hurdle. ?Juve may finish the weekend on top, but Maurizio Sarri’s side is in for one hell of a bumpy ride.