Two giants of European football meet for the first time when Lazio welcome Bayern Munich to the Eternal City in the Champions League.
This is Lazio’s first appearance in the knockout rounds of Europe’s flagship competition for over two decades, and the relative greenhorns will be relishing a matchup against the reigning continental champions.
Hansi Flick’s treble winners made light work of the group phase and cantered to top spot, posting five wins out of six. The Bavarians have stuttered in recent domestic outings but in Europe they are all-conquering and priced at 10/3 by Sky Bet to win the competition for a second successive season.
Since the start of last season, Bayern Munich have won 16 of their 17 Champions League games, but it would be reckless to underestimate the threat of Simone Inzaghi’s side later this week. The Eagles may not carry a star status in this competition, but they could yet cause issues for their German counterparts.
Goals, at both ends of the field
You would be hard pressed to find the last goalless stalemate Inzaghi took charge of; indeed the goalmouth rarely lives a charmed life when Lazio are on the turf, at either end of the pitch. In fact, they have scored and conceded at least one goal in each of their last 12 Champions League games.
Take that in for a moment: in 12 straight games both teams have found the back of the net. There has been a grand total of zero clean sheets for any team in Lazio’s last 12 Champions League games! This is certainly a point that needs reinforcing and the kind of preamble that gets the neutral excited.
In Group F this season Lazio notched goals against Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge and Zenit Saint Petersburg, not exactly aristocratic quality in this competition, but still a tremendous effort, with goalscoring fiend Ciro Immobile naturally the lead protagonist.
The three-time Capocannoniere recipient enters this contest on five goals — only four players top that this season — which makes him the most prolific Italian player in a Champions League campaign since Alessandro Del Piero in 2008/09 (also five). In his only Der Klassiker appearance during his days for BVB, Immobile fired a blank, but Flick will not be using that past acquaintanceship as a barometer of the Italian’s true capabilities.
So, while Flick will be drilling it into his defenders to not allow Immobile even a modicum of space in their box, he will take solace in Lazio’s somewhat porous backline. BVB, Brugge and Zenit all breached Lazio in both Group F fixtures, so Bayern should have few issues following suit.
The Bavarians have only failed to score once in their last 27 Champions League matches, while The Eagles have not kept a clean sheet in their last 17 games in the competition. That clean sheet came nearly two decades ago, in September 2003 at Besiktas (2-0).
In short: expect goals.
Careful of the ‘fast break’
While some managers tinker with their formations on an almost weekly basis, looking for some sort of tactical panacea, Inzaghi is a man of habit. The Italian is a diehard advocate of the 3-5-2, relying heavily on quick counterattacks and midfield balance.
It will come as no surprise that Lazio finished the 2019/20 Serie A season with the most ‘fast breaks’ (44) of any club, scoring a league-high nine from those quick counters. In the Champions League this season it has been a familiar story, with the club ranked second-best for ‘fast breaks’ (five).
So, Bayern will need to be focused and not allow too many bodies to commit forward. The wing-back duo of Adam Marusic and Manuel Lazzari are not afraid to eat up grass on the bylines and aid in attacking transitions. So, if Flick’s done his homework, Alphonso Davies could offer one solution to this potential problem.
A deadly link-up
Naturally a finisher of Immobile’s preternatural ability will only elevate the creators around him, as he gobbles up chance after chance, but that should certainly not detract from the quality of the assist. And one man flourishing in this system with Immobile finding space with absolute ease is Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.
The towering Serb was at one time the talk of the town and seemingly top of the shopping list for every European club worth their salt. In recent seasons his stock has somewhat plateaued, but on his current trajectory he will once again be en vogue when the summer window opens.
As it stands, the Milinkovic-Savic-Immobile assist to goal scorer record is Serie A’s most prolific this term (four goals), while the Lazio midfielder has also enjoyed his best ‘playmaker’ return in a single Italian top flight season (seven assists). Blessed with physicality, dynamism and a creative edge, Bayern need to be wary.