“Who knows, maybe we were lucky?” were the words of Steaua Bucharest owner George Becali after he discovered his side had drawn Lazio in the first knockout round of the Europa League. A statement shrouded in ambiguity was however contrasted by the Biancocelesti, who were unequivocally overjoyed by a draw which provided them a real platform for progress.
Lazio’s comfortable advancement from the group stage saw them earn 13 points, four more than second placed side OGC Nice, in what was a relatively weak group. However, the real talking point has been Lazio’s improvement under Simone Inzaghi. Lazio’s relatively patchy recent European history has been disappointing, but under Inzaghi the Biancocelesti have found their feet and their level.
Becali’s further comments smacked of ambivalence, “This was God’s will, He chooses and knows what is best for the team.” Despite having drawn one of the Europa League’s best sides, his comments were decoded further down the line when it became clear Becali’s joy was for purely financial reasons. The chance of a pay day coupled with the opportunity to put Steaua’s best players in the shop window on European stage is clearly vital for a Romanian club. Lazio conversely are now faced with an opportunity to truly announce themselves in a competition they have a real chance of shining in.
Although too modest to admit it, Inzaghi would be dumbstruck should his side not breeze past Steaua Bucharest. However, for Lazio, this tie is a bump in the road to a greater height, both for club and manager. Inzaghi’s stock has risen immeasurably; his tactical nous and man-management has seen his Lazio side brim with enough intelligence and flair to reach fifth in Serie A with a game in hand.
There is an argument to be had that the Europa League is Lazio’s level. Roma, Juventus, Napoli, Inter and Milan all possess much greater financial clout than Claudio Lotito’s side, and despite free-scoring Ciro Immobile and magical Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, their squad remains thin in terms of first team quality. While the Champions league may be a bridge too far, the Europa League unites a squad and Coach all building their individual reputations on the European stage.
Lotito’s recent claim that Juventus ‘do not have the money’ to afford Milinkovic-Savic is a verbal indication of where Lazio are at right now. The eventual turnover is predicted sooner rather than later, with the Serbian along with Immobile and Luis Alberto courting interest, inducing a bitter-sweet situation for Lotito.
For a club like Lazio, sustained retention of their best players simply isn’t possible. Despite this reality hampering Lazio in a sporting sense, it should not be discounted as wholly negative, and Lazio’s recent intelligence in the transfer market suggests any multi-million-pound sales will be re-invested wisely.
Competing for both a Champions League place alongside a Europa League trophy will be a tough ask for Lazio. The Europa League may indeed be the ceiling for Lazio, and Lotito and Lazio are aware of this. If they were to fail to progress against Steaua Bucharest, it would be disastrous for a club looking to re-patch both its reputation and recent competition history.
Lazio need to look past Steaua Bucharest, what should be a stepping stone towards a successful season should be just that, and they’d be foolish not to fire on all fronts for the Europa League.