To say Lazio are exceeding expectations would be an understatement. Following a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Udinese in the rescheduled game on Wednesday evening, the Aquile surged three points clear of Inter in third place. They’re in the Coppa Italia semi-finals and topped their Europa League group.
The impressive statistics don’t end there. Now that all the teams have played a full 21 rounds, the Biancocelesti are the league’s top scorers, with six more than Juventus. Ciro Immobile is the Capocannoniere on 20 goals. They have the fifth tightest defence in Serie A.
Simone Inzaghi has fashioned this hodgepodge group of players into a very good unit, and all on a shoestring budget.
This Lazio squad is a mixture of veterans seeking new challenges (Lucas Leiva, Luis Nani), players who needed a reboot (Ciro Immobile, Luis Alberto) and youngsters that the club took a punt on (Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Thomas Strakosha).
Despite playing in three competitions, their squad, unlike Inter’s for example, doesn’t seem thin on the ground. No Immobile against Udinese? No problem, bring in Nani. Luis Alberto, having his breakout season, only on the bench? No problem, replace him with former golden boy Felipe Anderson.
Udinese hadn’t lost for seven games, including a 3-1 away win against Inter, yet were torn apart at the Olimpico. Lazio beat Juventus in the Italian curtain raiser, the Supercoppa, topped their Europa League group – comfortably - and face Milan in the semi-final of the Coppa Italia. Inzaghi is surely a candidate for this year’s Panchina d’Oro as Coach of the Year.
What makes their season all the more remarkable is how little they’ve spent, especially when in comparison to their city neighbours Roma.
Lazio have realistically been a selling club since the heady days of 2001, when the cracks began to appear in Sergio Cragnotti’s business empire. That summer saw Juan Sebastian Veron, Pavel Nedved and Marcelo Salas all depart the capital for grander clubs, and the trend has continued ever since.
As Lazio’s status shrank from its late ‘90s peak, so did the money it recklessly threw around. Claudio Lotito, who replaced the beleaguered Cragnotti as President in 2004, enforced a strict austerity model that exists to the present day, much to the chagrin of the Lazio fans.
Lotito has proven to be a canny operator over the years, mastering the art of buying low and selling high. Much of the credit must be shared with sporting director Igli Tare. The Albanian, speaker of six languages, has proved to be an equally good judge of talent in his first position as DS.
It was Tare’s relationship with Miroslav Klose, dating back to their days playing together in Kaiserslautern, which secured the German striker’s signature in 2011. Furthermore, Tare also stayed in Brazil for 10 days in 2013 to oversee the signing of Felipe Anderson, whom he felt had the potential to be a world-class player, and subsequently refused to send out on loan despite a number of requests.
Lucas Biglia, Stefan de Vrij and now the €100m-rated Milinkovic-Savic were all Tare recommendations.
In correlation to their wage bill, Lazio are vastly out-performing their Serie A rivals. They have the sixth biggest salary in the league, behind all the usual suspects. Roma, who spend some €30m more on wages per year, lie five points behind their cousins.
Sure, one can make the argument that they lost Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rudiger and Leandro Paredes in the summer, yet Lazio also sold Keita Balde Diao, Biglia and Wesley Hoedt. And while Roma reinvested some of that money, breaking their transfer record by signing Patrick Schick for €42m, Lazio’s biggest purchase was Adam Marusic, who cost €7m.
Whilst five points isn’t exactly out of sight, and Lazio can still easily be caught with 17 games left, it doesn’t negate the fact that the Biancocelesti are playing with such verve and confidence that the likelihood of them stumbling seems implausible.
When you take into account that Inter and Roma have both simultaneously run out of steam in the last six weeks, there’s a real belief now that third place is there for the taking.
Roma are now in talks with Chelsea over selling Edin Dzeko, and reports linking them to all manner of different players as a viable replacement, from Fiorentina’s Khouma Babacar to Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, seem remarkably underwhelming.
Should the Dzeko deal cross the line, it wouldn’t do Roma’s fabled director of sport Monchi any harm to take a glance across town for some inspiration.