STADIO OLIMPICO (Rome): Are Lazio good enough to qualify for the Champions League?
It’s a question that has tormented fans all season long, and the Aquile have shown why over the last week. They were at their swaggering best against AC Milan on Tuesday, recording a 4-0 victory to extend their winning run to three games.
But, as has so often been the case with the Roman club, they couldn’t follow that up with a similar performance against a lower-half side, drawing 1-1 at home to Fiorentina on Sunday.
The debate around Lazio’s top-four credentials hasn’t been limited to the punters – Maurizio Sarri and Igli Tare have even traded barbs about it in the media, the coach saying Champions League qualification would be a “miracle” and the director insisting it’s the club’s “declared goal”.
Sarri doubled down on his take after the Viola stalemate: “I haven’t changed my mind – I’m convinced there are teams that are better equipped than ours to reach this goal”.
So who is right? Let’s have a look at the arguments for and against a top-four finish for the Biancocelesti.
Five reasons Lazio will finish in the top four
First, let’s state the obvious. Look at the table. Lazio are third. True, they’re level on points with fifth-placed Milan and just one above Roma in sixth, but they’re still on course for Champions League qualification with more than half the season played.
Another reason to be cheerful is their vastly improved defence. Only Napoli have conceded fewer goals than Lazio’s 16 this season, and the understanding between the all-new combination of Ivan Provedel, Alessio Romagnoli and Nicolo Casale is improving week on week.
Sarri has also happened upon something the club has needed for years – a functioning Plan B when Ciro Immobile is out. Felipe Anderson has put in some magnificent performances as a false nine this season, his clever movement and link-up play helping get the best out of the likes of Mattia Zaccagni and Pedro. Lazio beat Roma, Atalanta and Milan without their star striker.
What’s more, there’s a feeling that Sarri’s methods are starting to properly take hold. Lazio’s performance against Milan was their best under the former Napoli coach and the players look far more comfortable in his game plan than they did a year ago, with the likes of Zaccagni and Anderson enjoying particularly fruitful Sarriball seasons.
Finally, and perhaps crucially, Lazio’s big-game form is a massive positive. Their 12 points from a possible 18 against fellow big-seven sides is a tally only Napoli have bettered, and could be crucial come the end of the season. With the European race looking claustrophobically tight, having a better head-to-head record – the Serie A tiebreaker don’t forget – over Inter, Milan, Atalanta and Roma could be key come the end of the season.
Five reasons Lazio won’t finish in the top four
Let’s start with the Fiorentina result. As an isolated match, it’s not the reason Lazio won’t reach the Champions League, but it underlines a repeated theme for the club. They blow hot and cold far too often and frequently follow up big results with poor ones: they beat Inter, then drew with Sampdoria. They beat Atalanta, then lost to Salernitana. They beat Milan, then drew with Fiorentina.
Then there are the infamous blackouts. Lazio’s penchant for a spectacular collapse is an affliction that pre-dates Sarri’s reign, but a change of coach has failed to get rid of it.
Whether it’s the humiliating 5-1 Europa League defeat to Midtjylland, throwing away the lead against Salernitana and Lecce to lose, or somehow surrendering a two-goal advantage in the final seven minutes at home to Empoli, they remain capable of spilling points in the clumsiest of fashions.
Which brings us to the next point, and another historically proven problem. The squad struggles to juggle multiple competitions – as shown by failing to get through their Europa League group this season – and the return of European football with the Conference League next month will provide a challenge in how Sarri rotates the squad and keeps it fresh.
And that’s another issue – the squad depth. Lazio’s starting XI is among the strongest in Serie A, but the likes of Patric, Toma Basic and Matteo Cancellieri aren’t at the same level of those they replace, while Marcos Antonio and Luka Romero are still developing and adapting to be ready for this level. An Immobile alternative may have been found, but elite quality outside Sarri’s group of starters is at a premium.
Finally, there’s the fact that the club seemingly have no interest in addressing this issue and helping Sarri out in the January transfer window. No players have come in this month, and none will before Tuesday’s deadline. “We haven’t talked about anything, so I don’t expect anything,” Sarri said on Sunday. His limited squad will have to do.