Sergej Milinkovic-Savic needed only one glance to know it was time to start running. Few of the 60,000 fans in attendance at the Stadio Olimpico could have guessed what was about to happen as the Serbian, moving without the ball in the middle of the Juventus half, began to accelerate towards the left touchline. Seconds later, he was beside the penalty spot, scoring to give Lazio a 2-1 lead.
It was a strike that highlighted the breadth of Milinkovic-Savic’s talent. He had judged his movement perfectly, pulling away from Alex Sandro and bending a run into the blind spot behind Matthijs de Ligt at centre-back. Strength and finesse were required to hold off the Dutchman while taming a cross on one boot and burying it with the other.
What on earth had inspired him to make such a run? The ball was at midfield when Milinkovic-Savic launched his assault on the penalty box. There were nine Juventus players between it and the goal. None of which seemed as relevant, to his mind, as the fact that it was at Luis Alberto’s feet.
“As soon as I see he has the ball, I start making movements to get myself through on goal‚” Milinkovic-Savic later explained. “His passes are always perfect.”
The numbers support that assertion. This was already Luis Alberto’s 11th assist of the Serie A season – the most of any player across Europe’s top five leagues – as well as his second of the game. After Lazio fell behind to a Cristiano Ronaldo strike, the Spaniard helped them to get back level with a precise cross for Luiz Felipe to head home on the cusp of half-time.
It was a turning point in the game, Lazio finding the confidence that had deserted them during a torrid opening half-hour. Might it also be a turning point in this Serie A season? Lazio went on to win 3-1, ending Juventus’s unbeaten start as well their own run of 16 years without a home league victory against the Bianconeri.
“I remember that game,” Lazio’s manager, Simone Inzaghi, said afterward, recalling his time at the club as a player. ”I was on the bench back then, too!”
Circumstances favoured his team on Saturday. Rodrigo Bentancur, Juventus’s most impressive midfielder, was forced off with a knee injury after 41 minutes. The match then seemed to be drifting towards a stalemate in the second half before Juan Cuadrado was sent off for clattering into Manuel Lazzari. The Colombian was initially shown a yellow card but the referee, Michael Fabbri, swapped it for a red following a pitchside VAR review.
Juventus have won plenty of games with 10 men on their way to eight consecutive Serie A titles. Lazio showed courage in going for the jugular. Milinkovic-Savic’s goal gave them a 74th-minute lead but, even then, Inzaghi’s team refused to sit back. They earned a penalty moments later, when another lightning counter ended with Wojciech Szczęsny tripping Joaquín Correa.
The goalkeeper could count himself fortunate not to follow Cuadrado into the tunnel. Instead, he wound up saving Ciro Immobile’s penalty and follow-up attempt. He did his best to thwart Lazio again in the 94th minute, parrying away Lazzari’s shot at the end of a three-on-two counter, only for Felipe Caicedo to force home the rebound.
Defeat cost Juventus a chance to return to the top of the table, after Internazionale drew 0-0 with Roma on Friday night. But might it also have allowed a third horse to enter Serie A’s title race? Lazio now sit just five points off first place, and only three behind the reigning champions.
Milinkovic-Savic had sought to dampen any such talk before kick-off, insisting that his team were only chasing a spot in the top four. Maurizio Sarri disagrees. “Lazio are strong, more technical that physical,” the Juventus manager said. “They will fight us and Inter for the Scudetto.”
To do so, they will require more days such as this one from Luis Alberto. Three further assists would match the personal record he set with Lazio in 2017-18. Back then much credit was given to his mental coach, Juan Carlos Campillo, who was said to have helped with techniques to keep his focus sharp for 90 minutes even on those occasions when the ball refused to come his way.
The player’s form dipped again last season, however. Asked in October, during an interview with the Spanish newspaper Marca, about Campillo’s role Luis Alberto suggested that his latest revival might have more to do with the physical side of the game. He added more muscle to his frame in the summer and “learned that you have to take better care of yourself”.
Then again, perhaps this latest uptick has more to do with the team around him. Luis Alberto was not the only Lazio player to disappoint last season, Immobile dropping from 29 league goals to 15 and Milinkovic-Savic struggling so badly during the first half of the campaign that claims from the owner, Claudio Lotito, of having turned down a €100m bid started to sound like the boasts of a man who set fire to a winning lottery ticket.
As they struggled, Inzaghi was obliged to get more from other members of his squad – Correa and Caicedo in particular. This season, with established players returning to form, and the signing of Lazzari filling a creative gap on the right of the formation, the team suddenly have a wealth of attacking riches to call on.
They still look best, though, when Luis Alberto is pulling the strings. Milinkovic-Savic made it all sound so simple when he explained his decision to make the run as soon as he saw the Spaniard on the ball, yet even he could not hide his glee at the fact that the move paid off. “I might have to go back and watch that goal again,” he said. “Just two or three times.”