Coppa Italia: Runners-up / Team rating: 9 / Top scorer: Klose (13)
The arrival of Stefano Pioli paved the way for Lazio to become the surprise package of the season and reach the Champions League for the first time in eight years, writes Alasdair Mackenzie.
Lazio fans have never shied away from making their voices heard and throughout the 2013-14 season the Roman skies were filled with the din of dissent.
Vladimir Petkovic’s untimely departure, the sale of the talismanic Hernanes, a string of ‘Libera la Lazio’ protests and an embarrassing ninth-place finish ensured fans’ frustration was at a record high.
Fast forward a year and it is incredible to witness the changed atmosphere at the club. It has been a revolutionary season at the Olimpico, as a wholesale summer overhaul resulted in the club ending an eight-year wait to return to the Champions League.
This has not been achieved in predictable or pragmatic fashion either. When Claudio Lotito announced that Stefano Pioli would be the new Aquile Coach last summer, there were complaints that the tight-fisted President had again opted to save pennies rather than invest in established talent.
These grievances were not unfounded – Pioli had after all been sacked by Bologna only months earlier, before the Rossoblu were eventually relegated to Serie B. The rest of his CV read like that of a true journeyman, with short spells at Parma, Grosseto, Piacenza, Sassuolo, Chievo and Palermo coming before his time at the Stadio Sant’Elia.
However, despite all the doubts about the 49-year-old’s readiness for the prestigious place in the Lazio dugout, he has been an absolute revelation.
Before Pioli’s arrival, Lazio’s squad was in stagnation. Under Edy Reja, the team played pragmatic football which frustrated the supporters and failed to achieve the desired results, mostly because of an erratic, error-prone defence.
The new Coach immediately set out to see his vision implemented. A 4-3-3 system, interchangeable with a 4-2-3-1, began to take shape, in which the team controlled possession and used the pace of the wingers to break down the opposition.
It took a while for the dramatic change in playing style to take effect, as the Biancocelesti were beaten in three of their opening four Serie A fixtures. However, the system soon began to attract admirers and the signings the club had made over the summer appeared to be tailor-made for it.
It is difficult to recall a summer in which Lazio have signed as well as they did ahead of this season. Stefan de Vrij arrived on the back of an impressive World Cup with the Netherlands despite interest from Manchester United and brought with him the kind of measured consistency that the Aquile hadn’t seen for years.
The 23-year-old has made the notoriously difficult task of adapting to Serie A football look effortless. Along with fellow new arrivals Dusan Basta and Mauricio, the Netherlands international helped the Biancocelesti backline concede 16 fewer goals than the season before.
Filip Djordjevic was another extremely astute signing. He arrived on a free transfer from Nantes and was the star of Lazio’s early-season form, scoring five goals in his first eight games and consigning Miroslav Klose to a place on the bench.
However, an injury to the Serbian allowed the veteran German to reclaim his place and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The 36-year-old continues to amaze. After winning the World Cup with Germany, many people expected Klose’s intensity to drop as he moved closer to retirement.
But once again, he hadn’t read the memo. Klose scored 13 goals to lead the Aquile’s scoring charts and was fittingly the man to nod in the crucial goal against Napoli that took the Roman outfit back into the Champions League for the first time since 2007-08.
Lazio were electric going forward throughout the campaign. The current squad is filled with goalscorers and four players hit double figures for the season – Klose, Antonio Candreva, Felipe Anderson and Marco Parolo. Stefano Mauri, like Klose, had another lease of life this season and his nine goals were a crucial contribution. Goals flew in from all angles and in fact only Juventus scored more than Lazio this season.
The emergence of Felipe Anderson has been one of the major talking points of the season in Rome. The Brazilian arrived in the summer of 2013 amid much hype, but failed to live up to the high expectations placed on him in a difficult first season at the club.
However, under Pioli the 22-year-old has developed into one of Serie A’s most coveted attackers. It took the youngster until December to be entrusted with a regular starting spot, but he thanked his Coach for the opportunity in emphatic style. Between December and January, Anderson scored five goals and created five assists in five matches.
His emergence and the threat he poses alongside the superb Antonio Candreva have thrilled over the course of the season and the fans will be hoping that Lotito is not tempted by inevitable courtship from clubs with deep pockets.
Anderson was also a protagonist of the defining period of the Biancocelesti’s season. Between February and April, the club went on remarkable run of eight consecutive victories, which lifted them to second place.
A top three finish and Coppa Italia runners-up spot mark an excellent season for Lazio, especially given that expectations were relatively low last summer. The absence of the usual Europa League campaign seemed to liberate the squad, who appeared fitter and sharper in their domestic matches as a result.
There is no guarantee that a Champions League group stage adventure beckons, as the Aquile are unseeded and will have to first navigate a tough play-off to get there. However, under the intelligent Pioli there is evidence that the club are genuinely developing and this is unlikely to be a flash-in-the-pan season.
The Coach has proved adept at blooding youngsters and brought talented midfielder Danilo Cataldi into the first team this season. In Stefan de Vrij, Eddy Onazi, Felipe Anderson and Keita Balde there is a large contingent of promising young players in the squad who forge a promising balance with the experienced Candreva, Klose and Biglia.
It has been a momentous year for Lazio but the true test lies ahead. If the Biancocelesti can hold on to their stars and add to the squad as astutely as they did last summer, there is no reason why Pioli shouldn’t be the man to herald a new era of title-challenging heroics.
Pioli has been the surprise of the season from a coaching perspective. In his first campaign, he has made Lazio an entertaining, fluid outfit that knows how to grind out results as well as thrill. The Coach has also demonstrated how to get the best out of his veterans while blooding the next generation.
A difficult decision to make given the number of standout performers in the side, but Anderson edges it due to his remarkable improvement. The Brazilian has been a revelation, providing 10 goals and seven assists. His pace and trickery baffles defenders, but he has now added deadly composure to his game too.
- Lazio scored 71 goals this season in Serie A, only Juventus with 72 scored more.
- Miroslav Klose’s goal against Napoli saw him draw level with Simone Inzaghi as the club’s 10th highest scorer ever on 55 goals, despite joining the Aquile aged 33.
- This was Lazio’s highest Serie A finish since 2006-07, the last time the club qualified for the Champions League.
|1||GK||Etrit Berisha||8 (2)||-||-|
|3||D||Stefan De Vrij||29 (1)||-||-|
|27||D||Lorik Cana||15 (2)||-||-|
|2||D||Michael Ciani||9 (3)||-||-|
|85||D||Diego Novaretti||2 (3)||-||-|
|5||D||Edson Braafheid||12 (4)||-||1|
|13||D||Abdoulay Konko||1 (1)||-||-|
|39||D||Luis Pedro Cavanda||10 (6)||-||2|
|17||D||Bruno Pereirinha||2 (1)||-||-|
|24||M||Cristian Ledesma||7 (6)||-||3|
|23||M||Ogenyi Onazi||6 (10)||1||1|
|32||M||Danilo Cataldi||11 (5)||-||3|
|15||M||Alvaro Gonzalez||2 (2)||-||-|
|19||M||Senad Lulic||22 (3)||3||7|
|6||M||Stefano Mauri||25 (4)||9||2|
|87||M||Antonio Candreva||31 (3)||10||9|
|7||M||Felipe Anderson||23 (9)||10||7|
|14||A||Keita Balde Diao||6 (17)||1||-|
|9||A||Filip Djordjevic||15 (9)||8||2|
|34||A||Brayan Perea||0 (5)||-||-|
|11||A||Miroslav Klose||21 (13)||13||6|