Ahead of the opening weekend of the Serie A season, there is no doubt about Lazio’s objective.
Champions League football has proven infuriatingly elusive for the Roman club since they last graced the competition in 2007/08, as they’ve found just about every imaginable way of not quite getting there.
In 2010/11 they finished fifth, losing out on a play-off place to Udinese on goal difference.
The following season they went one better and clinched fourth place – but in the meantime Serie A’s poor coefficient had lost the league a Champions League spot. Therefore, fourth place was only enough for a place in the Europa League play-off round. Udinese were just two points ahead in third.
Stefano Pioli’s entertainers of 2014/15 stormed to a third-place finish that finally earned the capital club a crack at the competition.
However, at the time finishing third only merited a play-off place and they had to get past Bayer Leverkusen first. Lazio won the first leg 1-0 in Rome, only to crumble to a 3-0 second leg defeat, once again leaving their group stage ambitions in ruins.
Then came 2017/18. Simone Inzaghi’s side needed three points from their final two games against Crotone and Inter to finally book a guaranteed Champions League group stage spot. Easy, right?
Wrong. They choked in the most spectacular fashion, drawing with the relegation-bound Rossoblu before throwing away the lead against Inter on the final day by conceding two goals in three minutes and agonisingly dropping to fifth place after spending most of the season in the top four.
It is this rich tapestry of anguish which provides the context to Lazio’s fixation on ending the curse and finally allowing the famous UEFA anthem to blast out of the Stadio Olimpico speakers in front of their fans once again. It would mean more to them than almost any other club in the league.
Back to the task in hand. Today’s objective of a top four finish is no different than it was a year ago and although Lazio saved their 2018/19 campaign with a Coppa Italia triumph, there’s no hiding from the fact that an eighth-placed league finish was below any reasonable expectations.
The question of whether the club are better placed to achieve that goal this time around has kept chins wagging and gesticulations flying in the coffee bars of Rome throughout the summer.
At face value, not an awful lot has changed. Some have put forward the argument that Lazio won’t be contenders for the top four because keeping more or less the same squad that was the eighth-best in Italy last season is unlikely to catapult them up the standings.
There are three key factors to consider in response. Firstly, the club’s pre-season has been a huge success not only in terms of results, with the club winning all nine of their friendly games, but in terms of preparation.
Lazio began last season very slowly, with back-to-back defeats against Napoli and Juventus followed by some not-so-convincing wins over Frosinone and Empoli.
Part of the reason for the sluggish start was that key players like Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic were struggling for fitness after off-seasons disrupted by injury and World Cup exertions respectively, and both subsequently suffered big drops in form compared to the year before.
The team has had time to gel and gain match fitness and is in far better shape to take on the new campaign than it was a year ago – even though injury niggles have threatened to rule out the likes of Milinkovic-Savic, Lazzari and Felipe Caicedo for the opening day.
Secondly, although there haven’t been a hatful of new signings, those who have come in have strengthened weaknesses in the squad. Lazzari is the most obvious example, providing a huge upgrade on Adam Marusic, but the former SPAL wing-back and Jony were also brought in to provide a quality of delivery from the wide positions that was sorely lacking last term – a subject that was written about in detail last week.
Finally, Lazio’s main rivals for fourth place – Roma and AC Milan – face seasons of transition. Both clubs have brought in new coaches promoting new styles of play, while the turnover of players across the two squads has been enormous.
Comparably, the Biancocelesti’s stability could give them a significant advantage. Atalanta, the breakout stars of last season, should still be considered contenders and have also kept upheaval to a minimum, but their squad depth will be stretched in their maiden Champions League campaign – as will Torino’s if they reach the Europa League groups.
That’s not to say it’s all rosy on the blue side of Rome. The squad depth remains a concern, as Inzaghi is lacking credible alternatives to key players like Ciro Immobile, Lucas Leiva and Francesco Acerbi, and that could show as the season goes on with another tiring Europa League campaign in the pipeline.
As usual, the biggest questions regard the defence. Vavro’s performances in pre-season suggest he will need time to settle after arriving from Copenhagen, while otherwise a backline that has failed to convince over the last two seasons remains largely unchanged.
How Inzaghi handles these issues could be crucial to finally ending their 12-year absence from European football’s major club competition, but he leads his side into the new campaign away to Sampdoria on Sunday in confident mood.
The tale of Lazio’s efforts to get there is littered with ‘what if’ moments – now is the time for the club to create some history they will be happy to look back on.
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