“It’s alive!” The front page of Sunday’s Corriere dello Sport shrieked out like Doctor Frankenstein at the awakening of his creature. As late as 10pm the previous evening it had seemed one of the most compelling Serie A title races in years was coming to a premature end. And then, with a jolt, it wasn’t.
The newspaper gave credit to a Spanish sorcerer. Luis Alberto – Il Mago, as they know him in Rome – had scored the winning goal as Lazio came from behind to beat Fiorentina, dragging his team back to within four points of the leaders, Juventus.
His strike blended individual brilliance with good fortune. The touch and acceleration he used to glide away from Milan Badelj in the 83rd minute were glorious, as was the precision of his finish into the bottom corner from the edge of the D. In between he had sought to play a pass to Joaquín Correa only for the ball to come straight back off the heel of a defender.
Alberto would be a fitting saviour. Even more than Ciro Immobile, he has been the key component in Lazio’s title challenge – the sparkling player around whom a team find their orbit. This was his fifth goal of the Serie A season but he also leads the division with 13 assists. The Italian Footballers’ Association twice named Alberto as their player of the month before the coronavirus interruption, including in February – the last award handed out.
He has gone through several iterations since he arrived at Lazio in 2016. He started out as an alternative to Antonio Candreva on the wing before Simone Inzaghi brought him into the middle – first as a deep-lying playmaker, then as a No 10. Alberto rewarded that decision with 11 goals and 14 assists in 2017-18.
This season marked another fresh departure, Inzaghi pulling the Spaniard back again to play as part of a midfield three. Lining up on either side of the team’s regista, he and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic have licence to break forward and join the attack, supporting players such as Immobile, Correa and Felipe Caicedo.
For most of this season, those combinations have overwhelmed opponents. Lazio had gone 21 games without defeat before the pandemic hit. We still do not know whether Inzaghi’s team can recapture that form. They lost their first game back – a tough fixture under any circumstances, away to Atalanta – and, although they did win on Saturday, they were outplayed by Fiorentina for more than an hour.
The night had seemed to belong to Franck Ribéry. Playing only his second game back after surgery to repair ligament damage to an ankle in December, the 37-year-old danced between two opponents in the 25th minute, then persuaded a third to turn their back before beating the keeper at the near post. This against a defence who before the pause been the stingiest in Serie A.
Only a fine save from Thomas Strakosha kept Fiorentina from doubling their advantage early in the second half, the Lazio keeper not only keeping out Gaetano Castrovilli’s shot but showing awareness to push it away from Pol Lirola at the back post. Rachid Ghezzal hit the crossbar from another attack moments later.
It was not truly Alberto’s magic that breathed fresh life into Lazio’s title challenge. In Mary Shelley’s tale, Dr Frankenstein deployed advanced technology to animate his Creature. On Saturday night the Biancocelesti were revived by a referee’s decision to eschew it.
Caicedo chested down a cross in the area and then went to ground while going past the Fiorentina goalkeeper, Bartlomiej Dragowski. Michael Fabbri pointed to the spot.
TV replays showed the striker’s knees buckle before any contact. Yet Fabbri felt certain of what he had seen. Communicating with the VAR booth via his headset, the official appeared to repeat the phrase “he touched him” several times. There would be no pitchside review.
Immobile converted the penalty. Only then could Alberto turn one point into three.
And so the title race endures. One night later, third-placed Inter followed a similar trajectory, falling a goal behind to Parma and offering little evidence they were capable of a comeback before finding two goals from nowhere inside the final six minutes. Where Lazio had been granted a generous penalty, Inter were fortunate not to give one away when Nicolò Barella appeared to swipe the standing leg of Dejan Kulusevski.
There is plenty of material here for the eager conspiracy theorist. Lazio’s penalty was their 15th of the season – the most any team have won in a Serie A season since Opta started keeping records in 2004-05. The Fiorentina president, Rocco Commisso, issued a statement on his club’s website after the game renewing his call for Serie A to appeal decisions for a VAR check during games.
In this accelerated final chapter of the season there is little time to stop and reflect. Lazio play again on Tuesday, away to Torino. For the first time since the restart, they kick off before Juventus, giving them a chance to close the gap to one point before the champions face Genoa later that evening.
For now, Lazio’s title challenge stays alive. With 10 games still to play in the next five weeks, they will need stamina – more than magic – to sustain it.
• Probably too far back to get into the title race but still the best team to watch are Atalanta, who have scored 10 goals and conceded five in three games since the restart – winning all of them. Luis Muriel was the star on Sunday, scoring a brilliant double off the bench to help his current team beat his old one, Udinese. Muriel has 15 goals and only nine starts. He is averaging one for every 66.2 minutes on the pitch.
• Filling the super sub role at Inter is, um, Alessandro Bastoni. The 21-year-old centre-back – who grabbed the winner against Parma after coming on in the 73rd minute – is the only player to have scored a goal off the bench for the Nerazzurri this season. He had already done it once, against Lecce in January.
• Impressive in a different way are the efforts of Inter’s third-choice goalkeeper Tommaso Berni, who got himself sent off for the second time this season despite not playing in this game, or indeed any competitive fixture since he was at Sampdoria, in 2012.
• For a brief moment, it looked as though Lecce could make Juventus’s life difficult. Then Fabio Lucioni was sent off (chasing his own dreadful touch) and, well, they didn’t. A 4-0 win in which the whole attack got in on the act – Paulo Dybala, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín all scored, and Douglas Costa had an assist – will feel very welcome to Maurizio Sarri with tougher games to come.
• Walter Zenga had to wait three months for his first game in charge at Cagliari, taking over as manager right before play was halted. He has won two of three games in charge, while showing the courage to blood new talent too. The 19-year-old Andrea Carboni made his first Serie A start at centre-back in the 4-2 win over Torino, while the 20-year-old Sebastian Walukiewicz was only on his fifth.