Inter Milan and Lazio are finally again Series A title candidates 20 years from the heyday of the 1990s
When Lazio and Inter Milan meet in a top conflict on Sunday evening, there is an atmosphere of unfamiliarity.
The unexpected title challenge of this season is a bloody nose for Lazio, which has not played a title race for years.
And although Inter has gone through more recent periods of supremacy than their rivals from Rome, it is now still a decade since they remotely ran into the all-conquering Juventus.
Inter Milan rushed back from two goals and beat AC 4-2 in the derby last Sunday
Lazio celebrates their 1-0 win over Parma last weekend, keeping the pressure on the top two high
Inter Milan, Juventus and Lazio are all engaged in a three-way battle for the Serie A title
So you have to rewind to the late 1990s and early 2000s for the last time that both Lazio and Inter were real challengers at the same time, although it was only Lazio who actually raised the trophy for the Series A in those halcyon days.
That was a star-studded Inter-team, with Javier Zanetti, Diego Simeone and Youri Djorkaeff in midfield at the back, and Brazilian Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio and Ivan Zamarano in attack.
Although Inter would win the UEFA Cup in 1998 and beat Lazio in the final in Paris 3-0, they could never win their national competition, second in 1997-98 and third in 1996-97.
On both occasions a slightly brilliant Juventus team, including Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi, Edgar Davids et al, were crowned champions.
That Inter-team reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League from 1998-1999 and lost a total of 3-1 to Manchester United, who defeated Juventus in the semi-final and won the Treble.
The Brazilian striker Ronaldo (right) lifts the UEFA Cup together with Taribo West in the 1998 final
Javier Zanetti celebrates with his teammates after scoring in the 1998 final against Lazio
Ronaldo lifts the UEFA Cup, but it was the only piece of silver that won the beautiful Inter-team
Ivan Zamorano (left), Youri Djorkaeff (center) and Diego Simeone celebrate an Inter-goal
With Italian games currently live on Channel Four on Sunday afternoons, the competition carried a certain glamor with English football fans.
Those leading teams also inspired awe and fear, especially if your team played in the European league. The first thing Gary Neville wanted to know when United stepped out of their group in December 1998 was whether Juventus had qualified because they were the European benchmark at the time.
We look back with great admiration on the Inter team of that period and wonder how they didn’t win anymore. The reason was Juventus.
Take the decisive meeting of the teams in April 1998, which Inter fans can still shudder when Juventus received a penalty when Del Piero was thrown in the back by Taribo West, just seconds after Ronaldo collided with Mark Iuliano along the other end and referee Piero Ceccarini waved further.
The notorious error of Juventus’ mark Iuliano on Ronaldo in 1998 was not a penalty
Inter was furious with referee Piero Ceccarini’s decisions in the title-deciding game
Back to today and it is hardly surprising that Juventus is once again the biggest obstacle to an Inter-title triumph, which would have been their first since Jose Mourinho took the lead in 2009-10.
Antonio Conte’s team is not as blessed with world-class stars as it was two decades ago, but they are slowly adding contest winners.
Instead of Ronaldo and Zamorano, we now have Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, who scored 17 and 11 Series A goals this season, respectively.
Perhaps the injury problems that Ronaldo suffered during the last part of his time in the San Siro are more closely related to what Alexis Sanchez, on loan from Old Trafford, experienced this season.
Another feature of that vintage Inter team was their solidity at the back, especially during their second placed finish in 1997-1998 when they only allowed 27 goals in 34 league games.
Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring Inter’s match-seal fourth goals in Sunday’s derby
The Argentinian striker Lautaro Martinez was also in shape this season, scoring 11 league goals
Alexis Sanchez has damaged his loan period from Manchester United by injuries
This season, with people like Stefan de Vrij, Diego Godin and Milan Skriniar at the back, they are also impressively austere and have so far only admitted 20, the lowest in the division … with Lazio.
In contrast to Inter, the Lazio team from that time managed to make a title bid, which meant that the 2000 trophy was closed twelve months earlier with pain.
Sven-Goran Eriksson was in charge of a team that just looks so cool: Marcelo Salas, Roberto Mancini, Simeone, Juan Sebastian Veron, Pavel Nedved, Alen Boksic, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Alessandro Nesta, Sinisa Mihajlovic etc.
Lazio, billed by Sergio Cragnotti, millionaire head of the Cirio food brand, made a splash with their large purchases.
But it was not enough in the 1998-99 campaign because they had missed the Scudetto to AC Milan on the last day of the season.
Chilean star Marcelo Salas of Lazio scored their winner in the 1999 Super Cup with Man United
Simeone Inzaghi helped deliver the goals when Lazio won the Scudetto in the 1999-2000 season
Future manager Sven-Goran Eriksson from England led Lazio to the Scudetto in 1999-2000
Fans were furious when the club then sold star Christian Vieri at £ 30m for £ 30m, with Simeone the other way, but the rebuilding was impressive.
Veron and Nestor Sensini came in from Parma, the veteran Ravanelli and Simeone Inzaghi, the younger brother of Pippo.
They performed well throughout the season, but when Eriksson and Juventus were five points behind with only three games left, it all seemed to be over.
But Juventus somehow lost Verona 2-0 to re-open the race and on the last day, after Lazio had overcome Reggiana 3-0 to do their bit, wild parties were fueled when Perugia point earned against the Turin giants.
As we know, Eriksson only became England’s manager a few months later after he also delivered the Italian cup in a double triumph.
Simeone Inzaghi is of course the manager of Lazio, but instead of the headlines of the newspapers of the late nineties, the current Lazio team has been slowly and cleverly put together over the past four years.
Juan Sebastian Veron receives the Italian cup in 2000 when Lazio completed the double
Pavel Nedved was also part of a successful side in Lazio that still has a lot of glamor
Ciro Immobile, perhaps the most in-form striker in the European top competitions, does what Inzaghi did and scored 25 Series A goals in 23 games this season.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic controls the midfield and attracts admiring glances from the Premier League, while Francesco Acerbi is regularly present in the defense.
Just like the Sven team, the current Lazio vintage is fun to see. They have won 16 of their 23 league games and scored 53 goals, which is only a second return to Atalanta, somewhere in fourth place.
Unlike Sven, who won the very last edition of the Cup Winners’ Cup by beating Real Mallorca in Villa Park in 1999, this Lazio team has not yet succeeded in Europe.
Former Lazio striker Simone Inzaghi is now their manager and builds a competitive team
Ciro Immobile is perhaps the most in-shape striker in Europe at the moment, with 25 competition goals to date
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is influential in midfield for Lazio as they pursue title success
They collapsed from the UEFA Europa League in the group stage and ended up under Celtic and Cluj, but this could be a disguised blessing because it gives them more preparation time between the league games.
So it’s been a long time since a match between Lazio and Inter had so much meaning.
But both, just like now, can discover that the greatest obstacle between themselves and glory is Juventus.