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Lazio progress report after seven league games

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It all looked so promising in July. With the Milan clubs faltering big time despite a change in management and Rafa Benitez’s Napoli failing to reach their full potential, the stage was set for Lazio to push on for a Champions League spot. Sparked on by the wonderful skills of Antonio Candreva and Felipe Anderson and the predatorial instincts of veteran Miroslav Klose (13 goals from 21 starts), the biancocelesti managed to achieve a top-three finish for the first time in 14 years and the first time since Serie A expanded to 20 teams. The only negative side of an over-achieving campaign? Finishing one point below eternal rival AS Roma in second place, thus finishing one point away from automatic qualification to the holy grail that is Champions’ League football.

It’s in the qualifying round were things all went wrong. And it started so well, too! A Keita strike at the Stadio Olimpico against Bayer Leverkusen gave the Roman side a slender advantage as they took on the Germans at the BayArena. Bayer, however, easily brushed aside their opponents in a convincing 3-0 victory, with the biancocelesti also having their center back Mauricio sent off.

Just 18 days prior, Stefano Pioli’s side had lost their Supercoppa final against Juventus. And how did they end a disappointing August? With a 4-0 loss in the league against Chievo Verona, a drubbing that was followed three weeks later by a 5-0 loss to Napoli.

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Lazio have been severely hampered by injuries on all fronts, but that result at the Sao Paolo was simply unacceptable. They were ill-disciplined at the back and bereft of ideas in attack, with target man Matri and Stefano Mauri behind him hardly screaming “creativity.”

Nevertheless, since that embarrassment in Naples, Pioli’s side has responded admirably with four wins on the trot in all competitions. It’s really no surprise that this upturn in fortune coincided with the return to full fitness of box-to-box midfielder Lucas Biglia, who started three of the aforementioned four matches.

Currently, Lazio find themselves in third place, one point above Roma, having won five games and lost two. In the Europa League, they’re odds-on favorites to qualify from their group, having taken four points  from their first two encounters.

Despite their significant setbacks, Pioli managed to pull his side together, with the return of key players from injuries also playing a big part. Their away fixture on Sunday against Sassuolo provides an ideal platform to continue this purple patch.

Best Starting XI (when all fit): Marchetti; Lulic, de Vrij, Gentiletti, Basta; Biglia, Parolo; Anderson, Candreva, Keita; Djordjevic

Best Performer:  Biglia. Despite playing just three Serie A games, Biglia’s class has been a tier above that of anyone else in the side. Three starts from the skipper, three victories for the biancocelesti. Unfortunately, Biglia is the latest victim of an injury during this international break, with the prognosis being that he faces at least another two weeks on the sidelines.

Most Improved Player: Santiago Gentiletti.

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Injury News: Dutch centre back Stefano de Vrij’s knee has severely hampered his playing time on the pitch, with rumors coming out from the Lazio camp over the international break that he may need surgery to cure his long-standing niggle. Biglia, first choice goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, right back Abdoulay Konko, playmaker Antonio Candreva and strikers Miroslav Klose, Alessandro Matri and Filip Djordjevic have all missed significant game time during this campaign. Lazio have fielded 24 different players in only seven Serie A matches.

Best business completed in transfer window: Ricardo Kishna. Despite their passage to the qualifying rounds of the Champions League, Lazio failed to significantly strengthen their squad, with youngsters Kishna and Wesley Hoedt brought in to inject some youth in an aging side. Hoedt, however, was dreadful against Napoli,

Rating the manager: B. It’s all well getting results with a full squad  of players available and morale is high, but Pioli deserves great credit for picking up a demoralized squad after the loss against the partenopei and starting a run of four consecutive victories. Pioli kept true to his tactical beliefs, persisting with a fluid trio of forwards in most matches to try and make the most of the abilities of the likes of Kishna, Anderson, Candreva and Keita, who are usually given free license in the attacking third roaming around a central striker.

Weaknesses: Strength in depth, or rather the lack of strength in depth. Their striking options apart from Filip Djordjevic include journeyman striker Alessandro Matri and the increasingly injury-prone Miroslav Klose.

Gentiletti, Parolo, Konko, Klose, Matri, Basta and Mauri are all first team outfield players who have passed their 30th birthday. Doubts about the longevity of such an injury-hampered and ageing squad that’s also involved in Europe are already setting in.

Forecast for remainder of season: Will Lazio manage to replicate their top-three finish from last season? With Inter looking decent once again, Fiorentina racing out of the blocks at full speed and Juventus yet to get into gear, a spot in next year’s Champions’ League looks increasingly unlikely. Add Napoli and Roma to the mix, and top-three looks like a long shot.

Nevertheless, given their response to the major setbacks already suffered this season, a top-five finish is well within their reach.

Overall rating: C+

The abysmal performances against Napoli, Chievo and Leverkusen are mostly to blame for this low rating.

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