Lazio flying under the radar in bid to gatecrash Champions League places

By the time Simone Inzaghi faced the media on Tuesday it was almost midnight. The delay was in part down to the Lazio coach posing with his team for a picture in front of the Curva Nord. As he settled behind his desk and adjusted the microphone, the smile had yet to leave his face. "In 20 minutes it'll be my birthday," Inzaghi said, "and it'll be the best birthday of my life."

Usually a derby defeat is nothing to celebrate. But this, in the words of Lazio midfielder Senad Lulic, was "a sweet defeat." Lazio had lost 3-2 to Roma but progressed 4-3 on aggregate to reach their third Coppa Italia final in five years. It was never in doubt. Twice Lazio took the lead, and the away goals they scored left Roma needing a miracle. Divine intervention, however, was not forthcoming. Across town at the Vatican, the Pope was busy with Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.

"It was April 4," Il Corriere dello Sport wrote, "but it felt like May 26 all over again." May 26, 2013 was when Lazio beat Roma in the Coppa Italia final, the first-ever derby to have a piece of silverware riding on it. Books have been written about it and Lulic, whose 71st minute goal settled that final, launched a clothing line taking it as his inspiration. The label is called 71.

That historic triumph four years ago was Lazio's last win in the derby until the first leg of this season's semifinal. The Eagles had lost every Cupolone since and, in light of that, the bookies made Roma favourites. "No one had any faith in us," Inzaghi recalled. People were all aboard the Roma train and you could see why they bought a ticket.

Almost exactly a year ago, Luciano Spalletti's first derby back in charge ended in a resounding 4-1 win for the Giallorossi. It was Roma's biggest since 2002 and prompted Lazio to fire Stefano Pioli and promote Inzaghi until the end of the season as caretaker boss. In December, Lazio lost again, 2-0, in an acrimonious game blighted by the no-look squirting of water bottles in opponents' faces, play-acting, racism and a red card for a player who didn't even play.

A nine-game unbeaten run for Inzaghi's side came to a bitter end. Roma just seemed like kryptonite to Lazio. And in that context, pundits could perhaps be forgiven for making Lazio underdogs no matter how good their form was going into the semifinal. In the first leg, whatever complex they had, however, disappeared, as Inzaghi's boys put in the perfect performance and left Roma a mountain to climb.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic won't have to buy a cappuccino in the bar near his home for a long time after scoring in both games. Ciro Immobile's 21st goal of the season -- his 12th in 2017 -- was the sort of cold-blooded finish in a high-pressure moment that Inzaghi and his brother "Pippo" would have been proud of.

Sections of the Rome press corp who have regularly clashed with Spalletti this season reacted with schadenfreude. Il Corriere della Sera remarked, for instance, how Roma's coach "earns six times more than Inzaghi but, neither in March, nor on Tuesday, did he make people understand why." It's an overly harsh assessment of Spalletti, who, broadly speaking has done a fine job over the last year, the challenges of which are frequently underplayed.

But by bringing up Inzaghi's salary and Lazio's payroll, which, as other outlets point out, is a little less than half the size of Roma's, the sense only hardens that the Biancocelesti are getting plenty of bang for their buck. Their manager has been underestimated, the team underrated and, as a consequence, they have been allowed to fly under the radar for most of the season. Why is that?

A big part of it has to do with the disarray Lazio found themselves in over the summer when efforts to placate the fans with the appointment of a big-name coach backfired. Marcelo Bielsa signed a contract then pulled out, and appeared to confirm everything supporters claimed to be wrong with the club's ownership in a written explanation of his decision; namely that the ownership is stingy and lacks ambition.

Lazio sold their best player and vice-captain Antonio Candreva to Inter. World Cup legend Miroslav Klose, a popular figure in these parts, retired and when the ultras weren't protesting against owner Claudio Lotito, they were on strike against the plexiglass barriers dividing the Curva Nord, returning en masse only on Tuesday when the authorities finally took them down. Season ticket sales struggled to hit 10,000.

Expectations were low. Not least because Inzaghi, despite feeling he'd done enough to deserve the job on a permanent basis in the last seven games of last season, was a rookie bound for Lotito's other club, second division Salernitana, only to be recalled once Bielsa left Lazio in the lurch. Lazio had made "Simo" look like fourth choice. They invited Jorge Sampaoli for talks in the capital. They kept Cesare Prandelli on standby.

In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise that things unfolded as they did. Only once since Serie A moved to the three-points-for-a-win format in 1994-95 have Lazio had more points at this stage of the season (60) than they do now and that was when they were defending champions in 2000-01. Going into Tuesday's derby they had won 10 of their last 12 games. And yet they have barely caused a ripple.

Other stories have distracted us. We got all wrapped up in AC Milan for a while, as initially it looked like they were back and everybody wants to see that. Then Atalanta caught our imagination as a series of uber-talented kids emerged from their academy and cheeky chappy Alejandro Gomez gathered a huge following on social media with his 90s nostalgia armbands and the Papu dance. From November onwards, Inter suddenly got everybody excited as Inzaghi's predecessor Pioli instantly tapped into the team's huge potential. There was even talk of them breaking into the Champions League places.

Chugging away steadily in the background, meanwhile, Lazio have been there or thereabouts all season, without the same ups and downs, without generating the same buzz, even though Milinkovic-Savic looks a star-in-the-making, Felipe Anderson is maturing, and Immobile is having a better year than when he was crowned Capocannoniere. In fact, you have to go back 17 years to Hernan Crespo to find a Lazio striker this prolific over the course of a campaign.

Steady rather than spectacular, with a pragmatist not a philosopher in charge, Lazio now look like the only team able to gatecrash the Champions League places. If they beat Napoli at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday, they'll go within a point of third and confidence will hit new heights. People forget that, for the most part, this team has done it before. They achieved a podium finish two years ago. The question is: can they do it again?