Lazio look to continue rise

Last year after Lazio led the standings in Serie A for the fourth week in a row, manager Edy Reja did his best to ease the inevitable burst of expectation.

“We are not Scudetto material,” he said. “The players and I are enjoying the moment but we are a side that points to a finish in the top six.”

“We are growing and the team is riding a wave of enthusiasm while also fighting with courage. The players help each other out and this is the reason why we are getting great results, but it’s early days and we have to wait and see how long the team responds in the next two months.”

It was a rather anticlimactic response given that only the season before Lazio were under real risk of relegation, but Reja is not the most demonstrative of characters and is one wary of the vagaries of fate.  His greatest success as a manager came at the helm of Napoli where he oversaw the club’s return to Serie A in 2006 after two consecutive promotions, but after poor results which left Napoli out of the European Cup spots he was sacked on March 10, 2009.  The match which sealed his demise was a 0-2 home defeat to, none other than, S.S. Lazio.

Even when Reja took the reins at Lazio in 2010 he faced great challenges.  At the time, Lazio’s bureaucracy was in a mess.  Midfielder Cristian Ledesma’s contract dispute saw him frozen out of squad at time when they needed him most.  It was not the first time that president and owner Claudio Lotito’s pride was a detriment to the club’s football. In the summer of 2009, Goran Pandev infuriated Lotito by expressing his desire to leave the club only to be punished with the ignominy of training alone.  After being barred from making an appearance for the first half of the 2009 season, Pandev eventually won a court battle which let him leave the club for free.  It was a saga which was damaging for both the club and player, and it contributed greatly to Lazio’s relegation threat.

To steer the club towards survival Reja saw that Ledesma and all other players with contract disputes would have them resolved.  He wanted the players to focus on their performances rather than internecine legal conflicts.  His tactics found the club an immediate reversal in fortune, but not satisfied he outlined several areas in the team needing reinforcements.

Lotito, remaining frugal after the excesses of the Cragnotti era, could not fulfill all of them, but the arrival of the creative midfielder Hernanes provided the catalyst to an excellent season.  Hernanes immediately linked with the other midfielders, and his partnership with Ledesma forged a majority of the side’s chances.  Hernanes’s 12 goals and six assists propelled Lazio to 5th, but the supporters still felt wistful after such a promising start.

Reja’s pragmatic prediction of a top six finish proved accurate, and the pressures of squad lacking in depth overran them.  The defense did not flatter in defeats such as the 4-3 loss to Napoli and the 2-1 loss to Udinese which would see them just outside the Champions League places.  Also, the increasing amount of cards deprived the team of essential players.  At one point Dias, Biava, Stendardo, Bresciano, Kozak and Brocchi were all one booking away from suspension.  Mauri’s red card against Inter and Ledesma’s second yellow against Juventus saw them throw matches which may have been salvaged.

The most concerning deficiency though was the lack of goals in the second half of the season.  Throughout the campaign the goal-scoring had been shared equally between midfield and attack, but still the forward pair of Zarate and Floccari only contributed a measly 17 goals.  When oppositions pressured Lazio, they had no trump card upfront to see them through victories.

Now, normally the above description would indicate a club experiencing a patch of good fortune which will likely not carry on to the next season.  After all, the last season of Serie A was one which saw many of the smaller clubs thrive as the traditional names struggled.  Udinese’s 4th place finish saw them back to the Champions League after a first venture in 2005.   Napoli’s 3rd place finish was admirable for a side with one fifth the wage bill of Inter.  Meanwhile, Roma and Juventus both struggled to 6th and 7th place finishes respectively.  It would be highly unlikely to witness a repeat of anything near that level of volatility.

Still, Lazio have taken measures to ensure that their last season wasn’t a “one-off”.   Their investment in the summer transfer market appears both prudent and ambitious for a club looking to regain status as regular contenders.  The players who have been brought in so far include Klose, Konko, Cana, Marchetti, and Cissé.

Of these, Klose needs no introduction.  The second all-time top scorer at the World Cup, the man is a proven poacher who also links well with the attack.  When fit he is clinical, and after two tepid seasons at Bayern Munich he is set upon reaching an emphatic ending to his career with Euro 2012 just around the corner.  Cissé is another proven scorer who took the Greek Superleague by storm and has had success in three different European leagues.  Like Klose he will want to perform to warrant a position in his national squad.  Cissé has been joined by his former Marseille captain Lorik Cana, a tenacious tackler in midfield.  Cana earned the captain’s armband in his first season with Sunderland, and in one game he played through the pain of a broken hand without a dip in his performance.

Konko is fullback whose defensive displays have been suspect at times, but he possesses great technical ability with his dribbling.  He is a Juventus youth product and has previous experience in Serie A with Siena and Genoa.  Marchetti, an Italian goalkeeper and Torino graduate, won the nomination of Buffon for being his favorite young Italian goalkeeper.  At 28, he is still young for a goalkeeper and should be a good replacement for the disfavoured Muslera.

A few of these names may hardly grab the attention of the casual Champions League viewer, but between them they have the quality to take Lazio to that elite European competition.  Likewise, Reja has signed his loyalty to the club, although in the form of a one-year deal.  “He wants to work with one year contracts, that’s his method of doing things”, Lotito said after terms were reached.

Reja’s patience and caution has translated into immediate success before.

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Aarony Zade

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