Sarri strategy underpins unlikely win over Bayern – one of Lazio’s greatest in Europe

At lunch in Rome on Wednesday, Lazio’s owner Claudio Lotito presented Bayern’s executives with a memento. It was a portrait showing the late Franz Beckenbauer in a heartfelt embrace with Lazio legend, Giorgio Chinaglia.

Kaiser Franz, a three-time European Cup winner, and ‘Long John’ — soc called due to his resemblance to John Charles, the Wales striker who had previously starred in Italy — were team-mates in the twilight of their careers at the New York Cosmos. These are the ties Lotito chose to bind Lazio and Bayern together. Lotito, a senator in the Italian parliament and arguably the most powerful figure in calcio, seemed keen throughout Wednesday to present his club and Bayern as equals despite the vertiginous wealth gap between Romans and Bavarians.

Lazio did not make Deloitte’s latest football money league; their revenues last season were 20 per cent of the €744m Bayern turned over. Still, Lotito, donning a stetson as he paced through the smoke at the Stadio Olimpico like the owner of a saloon from a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone, tried his best at oneupmanship. He flagged how Lazio and Bayern were both founded in 1900 but his club is older, if only by a few months. A sense of realism only descended upon him when he wished to demonstrate his own pride at the job he has done as patron. Asked what chance Lazio had against an opponent billed by many, at least until recently, as one of the Champions League favourites, he said: “Tonight will be sport on the edge, almost the extreme. It’s like when I bought Lazio. No-one thought it possible.”

Lotito took over Lazio two decades ago when, as he likes to tell it, the coffin was being lowered into a grave. The club was on the verge of going bust, the days of assembling a star-studded team and out-spending the likes of Bayern had all caught up with them. Few, as is often the case with Italian teams, gave Lazio a chance on Wednesday, an underestimation fans of Inter will remember from the eve of last season’s Champions League final. Maurizio Sarri did not want to read too much into Bayern’s 3-0 defeat to Leverkusen at the weekend. He had got his hopes up a few years ago when his Napoli team seemed to catch Real Madrid at a good time.

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Sarri shakes hands with Immobile (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)

“These teams can get the odd game wrong in the league but they don’t cock things up in the Champions League. I remember prepping a game against Real. I went through a few of their games and had a good feeling about it. On the pitch, however, I had a different feeling. They were way better.”  In other words, if the real Bayern showed up at the Olimpico there was little Lazio could do.

It has been an up-and-down season for the Eagles. For all Lotito defended his record this season, boasting about investing more than €100m over the summer — much of it on upgrading an already modern training ground — this team has missed the two-time Serie A midfielder of the year, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic who departed for Al-Ahli in Saudi Arabia. There were moments in Wednesday’s game when the mind wandered to the days when Lazio used to lob the ball up to him and beat a Bayern-style press, to how his late runs to the far post were such a welcome source of goals and how his presence in the penalty area drew defenders away from Ciro Immobile. No team is built around one player. No Sarri team if he has his way.

But much of this underwhelming season — Lazio have fallen from runners’ up to seventh in Serie A — can be explained by the need to find new non-Milinkovic-shaped reference points in multiple phases of play. Nevertheless, the prospect of playing Bayern enthused Sarri. A football romantic, he had wanted Barcelona when the draw came round at the end of last year but the tactical challenge of facing a team this talented with Thomas Tuchel in the dug-out served to remind the frequently grumpy Sarri why he left banking in his early 30s to follow his passion and coach. On Tuesday, he put on a double session at Formello, which is unusual given coaches don’t often want to overload their players ahead of a big game. But these sessions were exclusively tactical, not physical, the intensity all mental.

As the players went through the drills, Sarri paced back and forth, smoking. He went into the game without his best centre-back pairing as Nicolo Casale was not fit enough to partner captain Alessio Romagnoli, a born-and-bred Lazio fan who was barely five years old when his team last won a European trophy, the defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999. Nicolo Rovella, the talented young regista who wasn’t even born when Lazio last won the league in 2001, could not overcome a groin issue. Mattia Zaccagni, the winger who scored 10 goals last season, was missing again too. Unlike Tuchel who was able to replace injured players like Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman with guys like Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala, Sarri instead had to lean on his ideas. He had to hope as well that the team ethic that has so often deserted Lazio this season might suddenly reappear and believe that Immobile, the deadliest finisher of his generation in Italy, continued to rediscover the form amid all the aches and pains caused by years and years of football and a tram crashing into his car.

All of these things came together in a tremendous atmosphere at the Olimpico, the Curva Nord transforming into a shimmering silver eagle from the Chinaglia era, the caption ‘Remember to always dare’ appropriate if it weren’t predictably associated with elements of the Fascist era. “In derbies and games like tonight the atmosphere the Lazio fans create is extraordinary,” Sarri said. “It was a magnificent sight.” The Tuscan claimed the fans followed his team with the passion of innamorati on Valentine’s day: the in-love.

Lazio rediscovered the compactness of last season when they kept an astonishing 21 clean sheets. But Ivan Provedel, the reigning goalkeeper of the year in Serie A, didn’t have a single save to make (or need to score an equaliser). Matias Vecino, a doubt on the eve of the game and Rovella’s replacement in midfield, dropped between the two centre-backs when Lazio were out of possession. Summer signing Gustav Isaksen and the soon-to-be out-of-contract Felipe Anderson tracked back as wingers became wing-backs. Matteo Guendouzi’s warrior-like performance earned him the Man of the Match award. Hemmed in for the first half, Lazio emerged from their testudo formation in the second. Isaksen struck Manuel Neuer’s perfectly placed ankle in a 1v1 and then drew the foul that earned a penalty and a straight red card for Dayot Upamecano.

Up stepped Immobile to upstage Harry Kane.

The 33-year-old deserves greater and better recognition outside Italy. His penalty, which sent Neuer the wrong way, was his 13th goal in 11 Champions League appearances for Dortmund and Lazio. At the weekend he became only the eighth player to score 200 goals in Serie A, joining an exclusive club whose members include Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti and guys who have stadiums named after them. A four-time Capocannoniere — Immobile achieved his first with Torino — only Gunnar Nordahl has more. Immobile matched Serie A’s single-season scoring record — 36 goals — and will go down in Lazio history as the face of an unglamorous and understated renaissance era in which the club has won three trophies, finished second and returned to the Champions League after 13 long years.

Opinions of Immobile might be kinder if he’d played more than three seasons of Champions League football. Few thought he would bounce back after flopping at Dortmund (in Jurgen Klopp’s depressed final season). Many doubted he had what it took to replace Miroslav Klose, the Bayern, Lazio and World Cup hero, who was on the sidelines as a pundit on Wednesday night. But Immobile’s bust in the Lazio pantheon is front and only slightly off-centre. “Playing games like these gives you a great feeling,” he said. “Getting to share it with the fans is the stuff you dream about as a kid.”

The job, of course, is only half-done. Bayern have home advantage and, crucially, three weeks to sort themselves out ahead of the second leg. But for now, let Lazio enjoy the moment.  The highs of this season, such as eliminating Roma from the Coppa Italia, have been all too quickly forgotten. This was Lazio’s first win in the Champions League knock-out stages since Seba Veron scored the only goal against eventual finalists Valencia in 2000 and, pleasingly for Serie A, keeps Italy top of the co-efficient and in pole for an extra fifth place in next year’s Champions League. Fifth might be how Lazio qualify given their league form.

If Long John is watching from up high, he’ll know his team still have long odds of making the quarters and could be made to regret not making more of their man advantage in the final 25 minutes of Wednesday’s game. But in the 50th anniversary of Lazio’s first Scudetto, Chinaglia and other members of that cult team, one that used to go sky-diving between games and changed in separate dressing rooms because of differing political views, would be united in their approval of one of the best results this club has ever achieved in Europe.

(Photo: Marco Rosi – SS Lazio/Getty Images)

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