On Monday night I talked and shouted my way through Cagliari-Lazio, and Tuesday morning my pulse was still running high. Acerbi running around on left wing and putting in crosses in the 93rd minute! Caicedo scoring with his shoulder at the absolute death! What a phenomenal comeback in a game where Lazio actually did not play that well. But there is just something special about them this season.
The Aquile started the season strongly, beating Sampdoria 3-0 away – and it could have been five or six goals for the Biancocelesti. At the time, many critics and pundits did not take too much notice. Samp had sold a number of their best players in the summer and not replaced them. Also, for years Lazio have been one of those teams who can score lots of goals on their day. In other words, nothing to see here.
Samp have – unfortunately – turned out to be exactly what they looked like in that first match. A team in sales turmoil who could eventually go down. And Lazio, who looked like world beaters in that first game, have also largely lived up to that the rest of the season. Obviously, their current eight-match winning streak, their first away triumph over Milan away in Serie A in 30 years and their impressive 3-1 victory over Juventus (only their fourth win vs Juve in 27 matches!) is very impressive.
But it is also worth remembering that Lazio should have beaten Roma in the derby, in which they hit the woodwork four times. Similarly, their match with leaders Inter at San Siro was completely even, Nerazzurri goalkeeper Handanovic man of the match on that occasion. They lost 1-0.
In other words, in Serie A, Lazio have been extremely consistent almost this entire autumn. At the moment, they are probably the strongest team in the League and some pundits are even starting to mention Lazio as title contenders. That may be pushing it a little – Lazio’s squad is nowhere near as strong as those of Inter and Juve (or Napoli, for that matter) - but top four and Champions League next season is certainly within the realms of possibility.
So what has changed for Lazio since their very mediocre season last year, in which they finished eighth and only saved face by winning the Coppa Italia?
To understand this drastic change, we have to go back to Lazio’s 2017-18 season, when they played some of the best football in Serie A but ended up running themselves into the ground thanks to the gruelling schedule of the Europa League and the restrictions of their very limited squad – something that could easily come back to haunt them again this term.
Lazio is a club with an extremely-small budget. Their player budget is only the sixth highest in the League at €72m. Napoli (€103m), Milan (€115m), Roma (€125m), Inter (€139m) and Juventus (€294m!) are miles ahead of Lazio. The Aquile’s best-paid players, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile, make the same as Borini at Milan, Diawara at Roma and Bentancur at Juventus - €2.5m annually. Ramsey at Juventus makes €7m annually, Godin at Inter €5m and Pastore at Roma €5m.
Lazio President Claudio Lotito, who has never been particularly popular among Lazio fans – or anywhere else for that matter - has always been a shrewd and cost-efficient operator since he gained ownership in 2004 after the crazy Cragnotti years. The upside is that the Biancocelesti is one those rare Italian clubs that generates a financial surplus almost every year. The downside is, obviously, that Lotito’s relatively low wages make it harder to attract players of the highest calibre. That also reflects heavily on the strength of the Lazio squad and has done so for years.
During the 17-18 campaign, Lazio were great until the wheels came off the last couple of months. Lazio played 55 official matches that season and made the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia and quarter-finals of the Europa League. In the end, they lost a heartbreaking match at home against Inter, struggling to field 11 players who were not injuried. Lazio played great football that year but ended up with nothing to show for it. They scored a staggering 89 goals – three more than Juventus and the highest number in the League – but they also conceded 46 goals, three more than Genoa in 12th spot.
Ciro Immobile scored 29 goals, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic scored 12 from midfield and Luis Alberto scored 11, as well as providing 13 assists. The next season Luis Alberto, fighting injuries, posted just four goals and five assists. Milinkovic-Savic, exhausted from the World Cup and possibly expecting a big-money move after his great season, netted only five with three assists. When he received his trophy for best midfielder of the season – a frankly ridiculous decision – he looked embarrassed. And rightly so.
Both Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto are back to their very best this season. The Serb, who looks a completely different player now compared to last season, has three goals, one of them a magnificent finish against Juventus, and five assists, while Luis Alberto has scored three goals and recorded an astonishing 11 assists – a high in Europe’s top five divisions.
As usual, top scorer Immobile is the player who reaps the benefits of the pair’s many assists. He has an astonishing 17 goals and five assists and he has even passed on a couple of penalties away to teammates. At the rate he is going, he could top his own record 29 goals from two seasons ago and he currently leads the Europen Golden Boot race, with Lewandowski, Vardi and Messi behind him. Immobile has now scored over 100 goals for Lazio across the last four seasons.
This all sounds great, you say, but it also sounds very familiar. Two years ago, Lazio were largely in the same place around Christmas. Why should we believe they won’t crumble at the end like they did two years ago? What has changed?
It is a very reasonable question. The similarities to the 17-18 season are obvious for anyone to see. The biggest change since then? There are a few. The maturity of Joaquin Correa is one of them.
When Ciro Immobile ran out of breath last season, Correa took over and was the main reason Lazio won the Coppa Italia with some very decisive goals. Correa is an astonishing player, running at defenders with the ball at his feet. Only Douglas Costa and perhaps Federico Chiesa can match him one-on-one. This is no secret and all teams double up on him, but because Lazio have so many options going forward, Correa still manages to get those one-on-ones with defenders and when he does, he is absolutely lethal. He can go right, he can go left and he has become much more clinical in the last year or so.
But Correa is not only important because he scores goals, gets assists and wins penalties. He is also important because his presence takes the pressure off Ciro Immobile, so that not everything depends on the former Torino striker. This was what took Lazio down two seasons ago. On other hand, when Immobile was going through a bad patch last term, Correa was able to take over and help deliver the Coppa Italia.
At the moment they are both on form and are a nightmare for defenders, especially when Luis Alberto is behind them to set them up. Correa has six goals and three assists to date, and he and Luis Alberto are such important weapons when teams only face Lazio to defend because their quick feet and creativity open up defences. After that, Ciro Immobile usually takes advantage at some point.
Correa is not the only change from two years ago. It is also worth mentioning that a couple of key defenders have got stronger. Francesco Acerbi, who was drafted in from Sassuolo to walk in the very large footprints of the departing Stefan De Vrij – Lazio’s outstanding defender three years running – had a decent season in 18-19 but has really stepped up since then and has also been rewarded with a spot in the Italy squad. He will probably go to the Euros this summer.
Luiz Felipe has also really improved this season and, with his pace, he is a great foil for Acerbi and Radu. Patric does a decent job whenever he gets the chance, but it is important for Lazio that the injury-prone Luiz Felipe stays fit because any replacement is a significant drop in quality.
The Lazio midfield is decent but ageing and surely sporting director Igli Tare must be looking for reinforcements in that area. Key players like Lucas Leiva and Marco Parolo are 31 and 33 respectively, and their replacements on the bench might not have the quality necessary to take over.
The last significant change from two seasons ago is the fact that Lazio have no European competition in the spring. Their Europe League campaign was a shambles, but all in all that might not be such a bad thing for them now. They can now concentrate on Serie A and defending their Coppa Italia trophy - as much of a lottery as that obviously is. Their lack of European football this spring might hurt their pride slightly – Lazio have done fairly well in the Europa League for a number of years – but if they can finally get into the Champions League, their failed run in the second-tier tournament will be forgotten quickly.
Lazio going forward is a sight to behold this season, and they’re a team who can beat anyone on their day. But it is necessary that they take advantage of their chances this time around. The great, lost season of two years ago still hurts in Rome. At the moment, Napoli are struggling but they will probably find their way back at some point, although it might already be too late this season. Milan won’t be in the dark forever either, and these are clubs with bigger budgets and in Napoli’s case probably also better and bigger squads.
The point is, historically and financially, Lazio are a just-below-the-top team who should be competing with the likes of Napoli, Roma and Fiorentina for the fourth spot in Serie A. Juventus, Milan and Inter should be completely out of sight four out of five seasons. The Nerazzurri have found their way out of the tunnel, whereas Milan and Napoli are both going through crises at the moment. Therefore, Lazio need to take advantage while they have the team and chance.
Generally speaking, Lazio will have an opportunity to get to into the top four once or twice a decade. They had one golden chance to get into the promised land of the Champions League two seasons ago and they wasted the opportunity. If they waste another one, who knows when they will get another?
How long will Correa, 23, Milinkovic-Savic, 23, and Alberto, 25, stick around if they miss another Champions League edition and Premier League clubs come sniffing around with huge offers? There is no doubt that Lotito would love to see money rolling in for those players, but would he not rather make his money by actually playing in the Champions League? Lazio better not blow it again this season.
Karsten Krogh is a Serie A commentator based in Copenhagen and has worked on more than 300 Serie A matches for Danish viewers over the last 15 years.