Lazio Club Focus: A blessing in disguise
Without a shadow of a doubt, the current six-team battle for Europa League qualification is the only exciting aspect remaining in a fairly predictable Serie A campaign, with the possible exception of the relegation battle.
Edy Reja has described Saturday’s trip to Inter as “the game of our lives” and said that the team “must believe in the Europa League”. However, it would be difficult to feel much satisfaction this season even if the club do make it into the top six, given a poor European run, the failure to defend the Coppa Italia, no derby wins and importantly the successful season enjoyed by bitter rivals Roma.
It has been the achievement of the old enemy that has made me feel that perhaps missing out on the Europa League for a season could be a blessing in disguise and allow the club to re-focus on what should be its primary objective every year – qualifying for the Champions League.
Lazio have not competed in Europe’s premier competition since the 2007/08 season, when they finished bottom of a group containing Real Madrid, Olympiakos and Werder Bremen. However, Edy Reja did get extremely close during his first stint in the capital.
In the 2010/11 season Lazio finished fifth and missed out to Udinese due to away goals from the head to head record. This was in a season with no European distractions, when the club could concentrate entirely on domestic football.
The following season, Italy lost a Champions League place to Germany due to co-efficient changes and Reja’s team proceeded to finish fourth, this time missing out by only two points, again to Udinese. This was achieved at the same time as a Europa League campaign in which the club was knocked out early, in the last 32 to eventual winners Atletico Madrid.
It seemed progress was being made, but a seventh-place finish last season and a finish this year somewhere between sixth and tenth are evidence of serious regression from the capital club. The evidence is there to suggest that Lazio would put up a sterner challenge, as they did in 2010/11, without the distraction of a tiring Europa League campaign.
This is also backed up by looking at other Serie A clubs who have benefited from not having such a clogged fixture list. Obviously there is the example of Roma this season, but their ability to take advantage of a domestic-focussed season is not unique.
In fact, three seasons in a row Serie A sides who were not competing in European competition managed to qualify for the Champions League. Sampdoria in 2009/10, Udinese in 2010/11 and Juventus in 2011/12 all secured entry to the world’s most illustrious club competition. Although the rise of Juve could be seen coming from a mile away, for Sampdoria and Udinese to finish in the top four was an unprecedented surprise that can to some extent be explained as having been the entire focus of their respective seasons.
If laziali are still not convinced by this line of argument, then consider the previous three Europa League ‘adventures’. Being knocked out to an Atletico side almost identical to the one now in the Champions League final was no embarrassment. A run to the quarter finals was then ended by Fenerbahce in an empty stadium after UEFA imposed a two-match stadium ban on supporters. This season, the run ended unceremoniously with a humiliating defeat to unknown Bulgarians Ludogorets Razgrad in the last 32.
One thing the fans have made clear to Lotito during their protests is that they want “to dream again” and these kinds of European campaigns are not what they are talking about. The constant Thursday night appointments have taken their toll on the club’s domestic form, as consistent injury problems have dogged a side already stretched from travelling halfway across the continent every second week.
The Europa League is not a competition that excites laziali any more and this is evident from the attendance figures. In 2012, 30,604 fans turned up to see the club play their last 32 tie against Atletico. For the same stage of the competition against Ludogorets this year, 7,549 supporters attended. Of course, they are much less illustrious opponents and they don’t have a former club legend as their manager, but the fact remains that the match was of equal importance in the context of the competition.
Last season’s three group stage games brought a combined total of 42,380 fans to the Olimpico, whereas the equivalent figure for this season’s three group matches was 25,999. Supporters are dropping off like flies every year as they find better ways of spending their Thursday evenings than watching Lazio take on sub-standard opposition in a competition they never really look to be taking seriously enough to win in the first place.
To conclude then, Lazio have proven to perform better domestically in the last few years when they do not have midweek Europa League games to contend with. Other Serie A sides like Sampdoria, Udinese, Juventus and Roma have also all reached the Champions League in recent seasons thanks to concentrating all their efforts on domestic football. Finally, the club never seems to take the Europa League very seriously in the first place and this is reflected through diminishing attendances for European games as fans lose patience and interest in the tournament.
The only way to turn this around, to fill the seats of the Olimpico and to make the fans dream again is to find a way back into the Champions League. It seems this cannot done at the same time as competing in the Europa League, so personally I will not be complaining much if Reja fails in his objective of a top six finish and the club is forced to concentrate entirely on domestic football next year.
Follow Alasdair Mackenzie on Twitter: @olimpiacalcio