In July he was criticised from pillar to post. The man of eight languages would not last that many matches, if the hype was to be believed. He touched down in Italy an unknown, replacing Edy Reja. Vladimir Petkovic arrived to tackle a new challenge, one more daunting than any of his previous coaching appointments. And the early signs weren’t good. Six months on Lazio sit third in Serie A, remain in the Europa League and are through to the Coppa Italia Final.
Lazio will contest their seventh Coppa showdown after a stirring aggregate victory over Juventus. They held a slight advantage thanks to a 1-1 draw in Turin, and put one foot in the Final when Alvaro Gonzalez ghosted in at the back post to head past Marco Storari. It took until the 91st minute, but Arturo Vidal seemingly sent the match into extra time with an equaliser. Incredibly, there was still time for Sergio Floccari to put Lazio ahead, and for both Sebastian Giovinco and Claudio Marchisio to spurn glorious chances.
“We are satisfied with the result and that was a crazy game at the end, but we had the right determination to take home the result,” said the Swiss-Bosnian. “The squad is really growing and tonight’s performance proved it against a strong side like Juventus.”
Petkovic has proven a shrewd tactician. He is willing to change and adapt as their recent clash with Atalanta showed. There the Aquile altered between a back three and four throughout to winning effect. On Tuesday he outfoxed Antonio Conte. Lazio clearly have a plan when facing Juve as the dual Cup matches, plus the 0-0 League result show.
A week ago Federico Marchetti battened down the hatches, but here Juventus rarely threatened the custodian. The capital club’s defence, marshalled superbly by Andre Dias and Michael Ciani, bullied, harassed and thwarted Juve’s attackers. Aside from chances at the conclusion of each half, the Turin giants were lacklustre in front of goal. With the defence slamming the door on Juve’s Coppa aspirations, Lazio made the most of their scoring opportunities. They netted from the only two chances fired on target.
The Sarajevo native does not always rely on steely determination to win matches. His is an expansive style, making the most of Hernanes’ technical ability, the drive of Cristian Ledesma and Stefano Mauri, plus the goals of Miroslav Klose. While a Coach who wants to attack, the Doctor does not let his players shirk their defensive duties – Lazio boast Serie A’s third stingiest defence. This measured approach has benefitted Lazio greatly.
Petkovic recently reflected on those initial problems. “The first two months were difficult and I won’t forget them. Nobody believed in us, we were constantly being put on the cross. They asked why a Coach like this was in charge of Lazio...Now the same people are lauding the directors who brought me here and appreciate what the team is doing.”
As the capital club prepare for their first Coppa decider since triumphing in 2008-09, around the corner is a Europa League Round of 32 tie with Borussia Monchengladbach, while they remain in Scudetto contention. Currently on 43 points, they sit six adrift of the Bianconeri. Petkovic’s outfit even equalled the points’ tally set after 20 matches by Sven Goran Eriksson’s revered Scudetto winners of 1999-2000. While an outside Scudetto chance, they are still in the thick of Champions League contention. It would be a great reward after missing out by the narrowest of margins two seasons in a row.
Depth could be an issue in the League, but a chance to win silverware looms on the horizon. It may even occur in a Derby della Capitale – Roma go to Inter for their second leg protecting a 2-1 lead. Petkovic just wants to get his hands on the trophy. “We want to win the Coppa Italia, regardless of who our opponents will be. For the fans, a Rome Derby in the Final would be the ultimate game, but I have no preferences.” It would be quite the turnaround from the criticisms of pre-season.