That’s More Like It
It is easy to consider just about every game a “must win” at this point in the season, considering Lazio’s current spot in the standings, but the match against Fiorentina was incredibly important. Lazio outplayed Roma in the derby, but still lost, and had nothing short of a complete meltdown against Bologna. This made Saturday night’s match not only crucial in terms of moral and momentum, but also vital for their Champion’s League hopes. With an away match against Milan on the horizon, Lazio needed three points to avoid being swallowed up by the pack.
Lazio started the match without, arguably, its three best players: Dias and Zarate were both suspended, and Hernanes was left on the bench. Twenty minutes into the first half they basically lost the fourth, when Floccari was injured and forced to leave the match. The situation was grim to say the least. Lazio had two decent chances in the opening minutes, and both were created by Floccari. Diakite was also injured a few minutes later, but Stendardo is more or less his equal, making that exchange a wash. In any case, it was up to some new faces to keep Lazio’s season pointed in the right direction. A nice little run and powerful shot from Gonzalez showed that he was up to the task, and represented the last interesting action of the first half. The only other event of note was a non-penalty call against Brocchi. Whether or not it was a penalty is secondary, as what matters more is that most of the Lazio players gave the referee a hard time about it. We haven’t seen that happen a lot lately, and unfortunately it is almost necessary with the current state of things in Serie A; See the second half for proof.
Lazio made no substitutions for the second half. They were forced to use two already through injury, and Reja was clearly saving the third for Hernanes, who began warming up just 5 minutes into the half. Initially things started out as they had ended in the first half, but the match soon opened up. Several mistakes by both teams created fast counterattacking opportunities, and there was a feeling the one of the two teams would soon score. The only problem was that you couldn’t tell which one. Lazio looked more threatening, but recent matches had shown that momentary lapses could and would be punished instantly.
And then those new faces began to step up. Gonzalez, already working hard on the right flank, somehow found another gear and became an absolute madman. He was putting in an extraordinary effort, and it did not go unnoticed by his teammates. On the other side of the field, Sculli was still struggling to get into the game. He was barely noticeable after replacing Floccari in the first half, and he frankly looked a bit lost. Then he started to get stuck into a few hard tackles, and finally he began to look like an offensive threat. A quick run down the wing, resulting in a corner kick for Lazio (and appreciative applause from the crowd) almost seemed to flick a switch in his head. It was as if he suddenly realized that he was a good Serie A player, and that he was capable of helping this team. From that point on, he was like another man.
Suddenly Lazio was really starting to take control. They had upped the pace of play, and Fiorentina were struggling to respond. When Stendardo won a ball at midfield with one of his intense, slightly out of control, fully committed tackles (he was actually on his knees when he won the ball), you could actually hear a slight laugh in the crowd. It was classic Stendardo. Only those laughs quickly turned to sheer joy when that same play indirectly lead to a penalty for Lazio. Stendardo didn’t make the last pass to Kozac before he was fouled, but Lazio would not have even had possession were it not for Guglielmo. It was no coincidence that after the penalty was awarded, Stendardo was pumping his fists to Curva Nord like a madman. And it was also no coincidence that the referee didn’t hesitate for second to whistle the penalty, sadly showing that Lazio’s vociferous first half protest really did have an effect on him.
With Hernanes, Floccari and Zarate out, it was up to Kozac to take the penalty, and wasted no time in burying it. Lazio had scored from just their second penalty of the year, and they had the lead they worked so hard to achieve. What was perhaps even more impressive, they didn’t relax one bit after the first goal was scored and maintained the same incredible intensity shown prior. So impressive was the team work rate, that even Stefano Mauri was running and challenging for balls with a fire that he hasn’t shown in years. He seemed completely transformed, and it was truly incredible to see
Mauri simply couldn’t ignore the effort being put in by Gonzalez, Kozac, Sculli, Brocchi, Stendardo and Lichtsteiner. And it was Mauri who intercepted the ball leading to the four against two counterattack and Lazio’s second goal. In the delirium of Curva Nord, it was hard to decide what to be most excited about: Kozac’s second goal, a brilliant cross from Sculli, a strong defensive play from Mauri, or the knowledge that Lazio were going to win the match.
With three minutes left to play and the win assured, a young fan standing in front of me said, “The best players on the field tonight were Kozac and Gonzalez.” He was right, of course, but what made the comment interesting was that these two players were not part of the solid starting eleven (or twelve if you count Matuzalem) that had taken Lazio so far. It had taken injuries and suspensions to get them the game time they deserved, and they were showing that maybe their chances should have come sooner. The lineup against Milan will likely included Kozac and Sculli up front, with Gonzalez almost assured to find space in the midfield. A few weeks (or even one game) ago, this would have seemed dire, but I’m actually pretty optimistic. We might not be able to outclass Milan, but we can surely outhustle them.