STADIO OLIMPICO (Rome): Ciro Immobile has saved Lazio countless times over the years, but rarely quite like he did in their Champions League Group E win over Celtic on Matchday 5.
The pre-match news that the Aquile captain had been benched came as a huge surprise, but if Maurizio Sarri‘s plan all along was to keep his powder dry, it was a masterstroke that may have saved him his job.
After a frustrating opening 80 minutes where Sarri‘s side looked to continue their dreadful run of one open-play goal in six games, Immobile struck.
And again. In the space of three minutes, the striker sent his side on their way to a 2-0 win that puts them top of Group E with 10 points and sends Celtic tumbling out of Europe altogether.
What could have been a night of more soul-searching and moaning instead became one of bedlam in the Eternal City as Lazio moved to the brink of the Champions League knockout stages.
An Atletico Madrid win away to Feyenoord later in the evening will be enough to send Sarri‘s side through to the last 16 with a game to spare, but whatever happens in Rotterdam, Lazio‘s fate will be in their own hands when they face Atleti away in their final group game.
Claudio Lotito warned that “heads will roll” if the team didn’t turn around its form quickly after Saturday’s humiliating defeat in Salerno, while Sarri openly talked about quitting.
While this was not a perfect, swaggering performance, it was the kind of professional job well done that Lazio have struggled to produce throughout 2023/24.
A ferocious atmosphere was expected between two sets of fans who haven’t exactly been best friends since their Europa League meeting four years ago, and there were some unsavoury scenes before kick-off as lit flares were thrown between groups of opposing supporters.
Things thankfully settled once the action started, with the home fans desperate to see a response, and they started well as the energetic Gustav Isaksen had a couple of efforts on target inside the opening eight minutes.
The young Danish winger was one of two hugely surprising selections by Sarri, the other being striker Taty Castellanos, as Immobile and Pedro were left on the bench and the Dane earned only his second start since joining the club.
Felipe Anderson nodded a dangerous header off the ground and wide with the best chance of the half, while Luis Alberto boomed a long ranger wide as the Romans’ bright start continued.
But the game soon faded into something of a stalemate, Celtic threatening briefly when Kyogo Furuhashi nicked the ball past Ivan Provedel, requiring a swift clean-up job from Patric.
Not for the first time, Lazio came out dozy for the second half and escaped twice in seven minutes as Kyogo fired a dangerous shot inches wide and Hyunjun Yang‘s nod-back fell just behind his strike partner as he waited for a tap-in.
A good run from Isaksen earned the Biancocelesti their best chance yet as he darted into space inside the box, but the Dane dragged his finish wide of the far post.
Immobile and Pedro, the forward pair who were expected to start, came on with half an hour remaining to try and breathe fresh life into Lazio‘s attacking efforts.
But it was the visitors who initially looked likelier to find a way through the gridlock, forcing a couple of steady saves from Ivan Provedel.
The Olimpico groaned when Luis Alberto shot over from 12 yards in what looked to be a spurned golden chance they could regret, but they were cheering moments later.
Isaksen again provided the spark, his shot taking a deflection on its way to the back post, where Immobile was lurking to tap in.
The celebrations had barely died down before they exploded again, as within a minute Immobile had his second.
Isaksen dinked a ball into the box and the striker was there outmuscle one defender, cut inside another and slide in a finish.
With 30 seconds left, the mood was dampened when the referee pointed to the spot for a Celtic penalty for a supposed push on Oh by Patric, but the decision was overturned following a lengthy VAR delay as the Scots’ night in Rome went from bad to worse.