By the time Joaquin Correa’s shot hit the net, Lazio’s bench was already spilling on to the pitch. Team-mates charged 70 yards from the touchline to celebrate with him in the far corner. Simone Inzaghi went in the opposite direction, turning to the supporters nearest and raising his arms in triumph.
It was a scintillating goal to settle a scrappy Coppa Italia final. Correa had menaced Atalanta throughout with his pace and direct running, but it took him until the 90th minute to convert that threat into something tangible.
Chasing down a hoofed clearance from Felipe Caicedo, the Argentinian slipped the ball one side of Remo Freuler and took his body in the opposite direction, reuniting the two on the far side of the defender. He cut inside on his right foot, then shot with his left, overcoming a heroic attempt at a block from Robin Gosens, who had chased all the way from Lazio’s penalty box.
Lazio had broken the deadlock eight minutes earlier, through Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. A late substitute, he was on the pitch for only a matter of moments before rising to thump home a header from Lucas Leiva’s corner.
This has been a trying season for the Serbian, valued at over €100m by Lazio last summer after scoring 14 goals from midfield, but author to only five previously in 2018-19. His agent, Mateja Kežman, claimed in September that the player had turned down the chance to more than treble his wages at Paris Saint-Germain because he still wanted to fulfil a promise to his current club to get them into the Champions League.
He, and they, have fallen short of that ambition. With two games to go in the Serie A season, Lazio sit eighth – seven points behind fourth-placed Atalanta. It was these same opponents who effectively ended their challenge at the start of the month, with a 3-1 win at the Stadio Olimpico.
Atalanta are Italian football’s latest fairytale, a team with the 14th-largest wage bill in Serie A that has outscored everybody, playing with a verve and courage that their wealthier rivals rarely seem to muster. Comparisons to Ajax are more than just platitudes. Fabio Capello observed how both teams were able to create more attacking options by committing players to one-on-one battles without the usual defensive safety nets.
The Bergamese club has not lifted a piece of major silverware since their one previous Coppa Italia win, back in 1963. They represent a city of 120,000 people, yet brought more than 20,000 fans to Rome for this final. The club’s president, Antonio Percassi, fought back tears as he posed for a photo with his sons in front of those supporters before kick-off.
Perhaps the weight of the occasion got to his players. Lazio are used to this stage, appearing here for the third time in five years. By contrast, there was an anxiousness to Atalanta’s play that had not been present during their previous 13-game unbeaten run. They played with the same high tempo as ever, yet they struggled to carve out scoring opportunities.
Then again, the game might have unfolded very differently if they had been awarded the penalty they deserved midway through the first half. A shot from Marten De Roon took a deflection off the arm of Bastos on its way to hitting the post. Under the interpretation of the rules applied this season, it was a clear handball, yet referee Luca Banti missed it and the VAR booth never called for a review.
Atalanta’s manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, did not get a clear look until after the game. He might regret that he ever did. “The players told me there was a handball,” he said, “but I thought it was one of those ambiguous fouls. In fact, this is something inconceivable [given the availability of VAR], the action is extremely clear.” Had the penalty been given, then Bastos, already booked, would also have been sent off. Instead, Inzaghi substituted him a few minutes later.
The Lazio manager cannot be blamed for a referee’s mistakes. Inzaghi’s substitutions paid off throughout, most obviously with the late introduction of Milinkovic-Savic. The Serbian had only just returned to training after an ankle injury that many expected to end his season.
We do not know if either man will be back next season. Milinkovic-Savic still has his admirers, and Inzaghi has been evasive when asked about his own future. The manager has drawn criticism lately for his team’s apparent regression over the past 12 months. Yet it is worth reminding ourselves that Lazio lost the man previously perceived as their best defender, Stefan De Vrij, in the summer, as well as Felipe Anderson.
Gasperini is likewise yet to commit his future to Atalanta. Some have speculated that he could even wind up back in the capital, as manager of Roma. For now, he has more pressing concerns. Atalanta need four points from their remaining two games to achieve a Champions League qualification that might be an even greater achievement than lifting the Coppa Italia would have been.
Their next game is at Juventus. Daunting, in a footballing sense, but a fixture that ought not to come with the pre-match ugliness we saw here, when 200 or so Lazio Ultras clashed with police, even setting one police car on fire. In the week when it was confirmed that Cagliari would receive no punishment for the racial abuse of Moise Kean at their stadium, this was another dismal scene for Italian football.
Amid the pomp and pageantry of Wednesday’s final, which began with a ballerina floated by tricolour balloons being brought down to earth with the trophy, a piece of art by Simone Fugazzotto was also presented on the pitch. Intended to send a message against racism, it showed three monkeys with faces framed in different colours, resembling the edges of panels on a football.
Fugazzotto’s intention was to “depict Europeans, Africans and Asians all under the form of a monkey”. Its effectiveness as a piece of art rests in the eye of the beholder. The prospect of any coherent move towards tackling racism in Italian football stadiums, sadly, remains as distant as ever.