Lazio’s entrance to the 2023/24 Champions League won’t be forgotten in a hurry. 

After 90 minutes of huffing and puffing but failing to blow Atletico Madrid’s defensive wall down, Ivan Provedel moved upfield for a corner.     

The ball was worked out to Luis Alberto, who saw the yellow-clad goalkeeper making the kind of run he learned playing as a striker in his youth career, scything through a crowded box to nod in a deft header. 

It sparked delirium in the Stadio Olimpico and a viral sensation online, with Provedel’s goal – the second of his career after a similarly impressive header in Serie B three years earlier – coming from the final act of the match. 

Once the dust settled, though, Maurizio Sarri still had some big questions to answer. 

Why did the Romans require a goalkeeper to score? Why was a previously impenetrable defence leaking goals in every game? And what combination of midfielders will provide some much-needed balance? 

Lazio’s second-place Serie A finish last year exceeded the most optimistic pre-season predictions. 

It was their best placement since winning the Scudetto under Sven-Goran Eriksson in 1999/00 and came after two years of failing to break the top four. 

It was no fluke. Sarri led his side to victory against all the other ‘big seven’ sides in the league – Inter, Milan, Juventus, Roma, Napoli and Atalanta – and they did so with a club record 22 clean sheets and despite losing Ciro Immobile, a four-time Golden Boot winner and Lazio’s top scorer for the last seven seasons, to injury for large spells and without any other recognised striker in the squad. 

It was a remarkable achievement, but it set the bar to a height they have struggled to reach so far this season, picking up a measly seven points from seven league games. 

“We aren’t a great team, and we couldn’t consider ourselves one last year either,” Sarri said in a brutally honest assessment after Saturday’s 2-0 loss to AC Milan. 

While the core of the squad remained over the summer, there was one monumental exception: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

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For eight years the Serbian ran the Lazio midfield, combining towering physicality with the deftest of touches, as well as buckets of goals, assists and a love for the big occasion.   

Lazio responded to his exit, to Saudi side Al-Hilal, by bringing in several new faces in a rare summer spending spree: Matteo Guendouzi, Daichi Kamada, Nicolo Rovella, Taty Castellanos and Gustav Isaksen to name a few.  

But so far, Sarri has found it difficult to integrate the new men and the results have shown. After seven games, Lazio sit 16th in the table.

Defeat to Milan was their fourth of the campaign, following shock losses to Lecce and Genoa in the opening two weeks and a reverse against Juventus.  

There were signs of improvement when Lazio went to Naples a month ago and deservedly beat the champions 2-1, but they’ve mustered just one win in five games since then.  

The problems facing Sarri aren’t easily solved, and the former Chelsea boss has raged about the lack of time he has available with his players to fix the situation. 

“I am ferociously p***** off with UEFA, FIFA, Lega Serie A, the lot. They are sending these guys to the slaughter,” he said.

“This is football nowadays, take the money and run.”

His team aren’t creating enough chances or scoring enough goals, averaging one per game. 

In attack, a slow start from the usually dependable Immobile has left Lazio more reliant than ever on the creative genius of Alberto, who penned a new four-year contract this week. 

For years the Spaniard had to share the glory with his midfield partner-in-crime Milinkovic-Savic, but now the keys to the kingdom are his and the former Liverpool man has stepped up at crucial moments, from the cross for Provedel’s header to goals against Napoli and Juventus.   

But there is evident confusion in midfield, where Sarri has used a different combination in each of the last five games. The only constant has been Alberto, who has played every minute in every competition for a side that can’t do without him.    

When it comes to integrating new players, Sarri has made his feelings typically clear.

“These guys tactically aren’t ready to play with us, but if they don’t play, they will never get used to it,” he said. 

Perhaps the greatest concern from Lazio’s start has been at the back, though. 

The defence is largely unchanged, yet the backline that kept 22 clean sheets has already conceded 10 goals – a third of their total from last term – and only Frosinone, Empoli and Sassuolo have faced more shots per game in Serie A.  

While Sarri goes about trying to fix the problems of the here and now, he must also seek to solve an issue that has plagued Lazio for years – juggling domestic and European duties. 

It wasn’t a coincidence that Lazio performed well in Serie A last season after an abject group-stage Europa League exit and subsequent Conference League defeat to AZ. The earlier they go out in Europe, the better their league campaign tends to go.  

A trip to Celtic is a timely reminder of this. When the two clubs last clashed in 2019/20 in the Europa League, a rotated Lazio side lost home and away to the Bhoys on their way to a group-stage exit, but went on to qualify for the Champions League and win the Coppa Italia. 

Sarri is still learning how best to rotate his squad after a transfer window that resulted in reports of discontent and tension between the coach and club owner Claudio Lotito. 

Safe to say, Celtic are facing Lazio at a good time. 

But this is still a squad packed with talent, from defensive leader Alessio Romagnoli to creative genius Alberto, tricky winger Mattia Zaccagni and Lazio’s all-time top scorer Immobile. 

They have proven time and again – as they did in Naples – that they can raise their level in big games. 

And after working so hard to return to European football’s top table, this squad has the hunger to make the most of it. Just ask Provedel.