Stefano Pioli spoke excitedly after witnessing his team negotiate a difficult trip to Torino and come away with a 0-2 win. “I think we’ve gained a winning mentality, built thanks to positive results which gave us confidence” said Lazio’s coach and if winning mentality is a phrase a little overused among the buzzwords of modern football, it is definitely true in the case of the Biancocelesti. Torino had lost just once at home since September but Pioli’s Lazio would record their fifth win in a row to move 3 points clear of Napoli in the race for the third Champions League qualifying spot.
Lazio would be without the suspended Antonio Candreva who with 37 chances produced and 7 assists is their most creative outlet, but attacking midfielder Felipe Anderson would step into the void with 2 goals.
The Brazilian now has 8 goals, making him the club’s joint top-scorer with Stefano Mauri and Miroslav Klose, and 6 assists, leaving him one short of Candreva. After struggling in his first year in Italy following an €8 million move from Santos in June 2013, few have been left with doubts over the ability of the 21 year old who continues to enjoy a remarkable second season. “Felipe Anderson has enormous potential,” Pioli said, “He can become a player who will be unstoppable for his opponents.”
Shorn also of long-term injury absentee Filip Djordjevic, the main centre-forward who had scored 7 goals before fracturing his ankle against AC Milan in January, Pioli has relied on experience to take-over the goal-scoring mantle left behind by the Serbian and hasn’t been let down, with 35 year old Mauri and 36 year old Klose still producing the goods at a ripe old age.
The versatile Candreva meanwhile, nicknamed “The Moped” for his reliability and work-rate, has continued his excellent form on the right side of the front 3, making a mockery of the £4.5 million it took for the Rome club to sign the 28 year old from Udinese in 2012.
Recent performances have included that thrashing of Milan as well as handsome victories over Sassuolo and far more impressively Fiorentina, fellow challengers to the Serie A’s top 3 places and Champions League qualification. Pioli has also guided them into the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, where they are poised 1-1 with Napoli ahead of the second leg in Naples.
The season has marked a breakthrough for Pioli who has previously failed to make his mark in Serie A despite some relative successes down the Italian football pyramid. A 3 year spell at Bologna was undermined by budget restrictions and poor form which culminated in the relegation campaign of last season and he was set free to replace Edoardo Reja at the Stadio Olimpico last June.
Though met with initial disillusionment by Lazio supporters he was cited as the antidote to Reja’s inflexibility and overriding caution, a low-cost manager with a reputation for entertaining football and developing young talent.
The football has undoubtedly been entertaining, only league leaders Juventus have scored more than Lazio’s 49 goals and nobody has netted more times on the road than the Biancocelesti. “Lazio are playing with pace, intensity and an overwhelming dominance which make it very enjoyable to watch. I have not seen such exciting matches in Serie A for some time” is the verdict of former coach Dino Zoff, who says this current Lazio team is the best since the Sergio Cragnotti-funded Scudetto winning side of 1999-2000 under Sven Goran Eriksson.
Pioli has stuck invariably to a 4-3-3 which operates with a high defensive line designed to force opposing teams back and to put pressure and establish possession in the opponent’s half. A driving force behind that is Marco Parolo who has made his £4.8 million summer move from Parma look a bargain with his energetic displays and attacking runs which have got him 6 goals. The midfielder has featured the most under Pioli, missing just 2 of Lazio’s 27 league games so far.
Alongside him Argentine midfielder Lucas Biglia has missed only 6 games and provides his competitive edge and experience in the engine room while fellow 29 year old Senad Lulic provides an option on the left of a midfield three, another who possesses stamina, energy and dynamism, traits that are so appealing to Pioli’s philosophy. Meanwhile veterans Lorik Cana and Christian Ledesma remain indispensable squad options on hand to provide their wealth of know-how should it be required.
Pioli’s style also preaches adventurous full-backs so it is perhaps no surprise that first choice pairing Dusan Basta and Stefan Radu have combined to create a total of 26 chances while cover options Luis Pedro Cavanda and Edson Braafhied have got forward to make 7 and 12 chances respectively. That can leave them vulnerable on the counter attack but when they have time to get in shape Pioli’s men stay extremely well organised and resilient, their rate of 20.7 tackles and 19 interceptions per game are league highs in the respective columns.
Only the top 2 of Juventus and Roma have conceded less than Lazio’s 27 and this recent 5 game winning run has been geared by a stingy defence that has shipped just 1 goal in that period. Pioli’s most expensive signing last summer, the £5 million Dutch centre-half Stefan De Vrij, has been a huge success in his first year in Italy and the 23 year old has plenty of time to improve even further while Mauricio, loaned in from Sporting Lisbon in January with the option to make it permanent in the summer, has settled in well alongside him.
It has all made for a successful mix that has given Pioli cause to set his sights not only a return to the Champions League for the first time in 8 seasons but on overcoming city rivals Roma and finishing in the top 2. “What exactly is our target? To win every game and get back into Europe. Is second place a taboo?” asked Pioli. “No, it’s not. If we win all our games, then we’ll finish high up the standings.”
With the dazzling youthful qualities of De Vrij, Felipe Anderson and the highly-rated 20 year old Keita Badle Diao mixing with the imperious experience of Klose, Mauri, Cana and Ledesma, then glossed with the skills of Parolo and Candreva, there should be no limit to the ambitions Lazio harbour under Pioli.
In the white and blue half of Rome, the glory days may be coming back again.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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