- Inter need to beat Lazio on Sunday to earn a Champions League bid next year.
- Inter will have to ditch their more conservative offensive attack in this must-win scenario.
- Lazio will happily kill off the game and walk away with a boring scoreless draw and a Champions League ticket.
As Europe’s club season winds down, most of the big races have already been decided. England and Germany’s seasons are over. In Italy and Spain, Juventus and Barcelona have clinched their titles. The last great race is for the top four in Italy. Fourth gets a Champions League spot, and fifth is off to the Europa League. Right now Lazio sit in fourth with 72 points, while Inter Milan are hovering behind them with 69. If they finish tied, Inter has the tiebreaker. Oh, and they play each other this weekend (Sunday, 2:45 p.m. ET).
Both teams could have been in a much better position. Inter, however, managed to lose at home to Sassuolo, while Lazio went to Crotone but still needed to rescue a late draw with an 84th-minute goal. Both of these teams tried really hard to choke away a top-four finish, but the other wouldn’t let them. That means it’s all on the line this Sunday. Inter win and they’re in; any other result and Lazio return to the Champions League for the first time since 2007-08 (they missed out on the group stage in 2015-16 by losing in the qualifying round to Bayer Leverkusen, but starting next season fourth place in Serie A goes right to the group stages).
Lazio have had a tremendous attacking season: They lead Serie A with 87 goals despite expected goals predicting they’d score only 65, although even that total was the second-highest expected goal total in the league. Led by Ciro Immobile, who has a league-high 29 goals, and Luis Alberto, who has a league-high 14 assists, Lazio play an unorthodox back-five system committed to getting their two attackers in behind the defense.
However, that attacking mojo disappears against good opponents. Lazio is more than happy to keep the wingbacks deep, play a conservative back five and try to focus on shutting the game down. Given that they need only a draw to secure fourth, that’s very likely going to be their game plan against Inter.
Inter, for their part, have scored significantly fewer goals, only 63, with 59 expected goals, and they rely extremely heavily on their own outstanding striker Mauro Icardi (28 goals, pictured above). Winger Ivan Perisic has 11. Nobody else on the team has more than four. Inter will gladly keep the ball, they have the fourth-highest possession rate in Serie A with 55.1%, but they don’t use that possession to flood men forward. Instead they play at a relatively conservative pace and eventually hope to spring Icardi in the box and let him do his magic.
Defensively, both teams are capable but not great. They both concede 11.5 shots a game, which is tied for seventh-fewest. But while Lazio has given up six more goals than the 40 expected, Inter has conceded eight fewer than the 36 they were predicted to cough up. This isn’t an accident: Part of the reason Inter relies so heavily on Icardi is the team’s emphasis on not getting caught with men ahead of the ball. It has broadly worked, but they’ll need to be more expansive this weekend in a must-win scenario.
They’ll need midfielders such as Marcelo Brozovic and Rafinha, who are entirely capable of getting forward if they’re told to, to be more involved in attacking Lazio. They’ll have to be comfortable taking risks and pushing the issue, otherwise Lazio will happily kill off the game and walk away with a boring scoreless draw and a Champions League ticket.
Lazio is a good team, with great attackers. They’re happy to concede the ball, play extremely conservatively, and then spring into action. If Inter have any chance of making it to the Champions League they’re going to have to make Lazio pay for their conservatism. That means ripping up the usual game plan and throwing caution to the wind. Lazio might pick them off on the counterattack, but it’s the best chance Inter have. Otherwise Lazio will spend the match with three centerbacks all collapsing on Icardi. Inter can earn themselves a victory on Sunday, but they’re going to have to change the way they play to do it.