STADIO OLIMPICO (Rome) – Progress has been the buzzword for Lazio this season.
How could it not be? At each of Maurizio Sarri‘s clubs since leaving Napoli, his work has been judged in comparison to what he achieved in Campania.
Reviving that mesmerising football was the dream of Chelsea, Juventus, and now Lazio.
The difference between the Roman club and the other two isn’t finance or prestige, but patience. Sarri will have time to build, rather than being handed unreasonable short-term demands.
Thursday’s 2-2 Europa League draw with Porto was undoubtedly a missed opportunity. Lazio went in front and failed to win in both legs.
In Rome, they conceded a silly (if soft) penalty to let the Portuguese side back into the game, and they were unlucky not to score more than once in a late bombardment.
But if we’re keeping a close eye on progress, we must reach the conclusion that Lazio are a lot further along in the tricky transition from Simone Inzaghi’s vertical, lightning strike football to Sarri’s more technical, high-pressing game.
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Porto were put under pressure high up the pitch, with Sergej Milinkovic-Savic intercepting a Pepe pass to send Ciro Immobile through for the opening goal, and they dominated the closing stages.
Attacking has rarely been a problem for Lazio this season, and Inter Milan are the only side who have scored more goals than their 53 in 26 Serie A games.
With the defence being what it is, woefully lacking in depth, and prone to costly individual errors, there is only so much that can be done until the club decides to invest in reinforcements – something they failed to do in January.
When any team is knocked out of Europe, the question is always asked about what benefit that might have on their domestic ambitions.
Just look at Inter, who bombed out of the Champions League at the group stage last season and then kicked on from third place to win the title, overtaking an AC Milan side whose Europa League campaign ran into mid-March.
Sarri has made it clear since he arrived in Rome that he isn’t happy about the amount of time he gets to coach his players on the training ground, due to a packed fixture calendar that often involves three games a week.
Before the Porto game, he even went as far as to suggest that “without the European commitments we would already be fighting for the Champions League places”.
He might have a point. Lazio have dropped an incredible 16 points from 21 available in the league games that have come directly after Europa League matches this season.
The five they picked up were from beating Salernitana and drawing with Cagliari and Udinese, while they lost to Sassuolo (2-1), Bologna (3-0), Verona (4-1), and Napoli (4-0).
The latter three are Lazio’s heaviest league defeats of the season and that’s not a coincidence.
That said, now is the time for Sarri to put his money where his mouth is. Surprisingly, considering the aforementioned slip-ups and Lazio’s general inconsistency this season, fourth place is still within sight.
Lazio are sixth, four points behind Juventus, who are still in the Champions League for now. Fifth-placed Atalanta have progressed in the Europa League.
With no midweek rounds left this season in Serie A, Sarri will finally have the chance to prepare his players properly for each league game, unlike his direct rivals for fourth spot.
Progress is already tangible, with the displays against Porto far outshining any of Lazio’s group stage performances, but the greatest strides forward may well be taken in the final few months of the season with no distractions remaining.
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