Has Lazio found permanent relief or temporary respite from a self-imposed crisis?

After a bright start to 2009/10, the eagles of Lazio threatened to sour through the season, but the decision to clip their own wings has pulled them into turmoil. The statistics may tell you this is one of the meanest defences in the league, but the story shows a club cracking up.

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Lazio started the season by winning the Supercoppa Italiana against Inter. Back-to-back victories against Atalanta and Chievo were accompanied with qualification to the Group Stage of Europa League. When the team crashed 0-2 at home against Juventus, little did anyone know that this would be the beginning of a miserable run for the Biancocelesti. To quote the numbers, since those two opening wins, Lazio embarked on a 13-game winless streak, collecting a measly seven points out of a possible 39. During this time, they scored just six goals and conceded 14. As of now, Lazio have the second best defence and the second worst offense in Serie A. The numbers point to inadequacies in the attack in Rome, but the problems at the club go beyond their mis-firing strikers.

It started over the summer with tension in camp arising from three players – Goran Pandev, Cristian Ledesma and Lorenzo De Silvestri. Pandev, with one year left on his contract, demanded a rise in his salary and when management refused to oblige, he sought a move away from the Stadio Olimpico. The Macedonian forward was linked with a host of clubs including Inter and Juventus. Ledesma too wanted a salary rise and was offered a better contract by club owner and President Claudio Lotito. However, Ledesma tried to leverage interest in him from other clubs like Napoli for a higher salary. As the transfer window came to a close and a move away seemed unlikely, Lotito withdrew the offer and left Ledesma in limbo. De Silvestri also had contract issues and was clearly unhappy playing second fiddle to new signing Stephan Lichtsteiner. He was luckier than the other two as he managed to engineer a move away to Fiorentina five days before the transfer of the closing window.

Lotito branded these players as ‘rebels’ as they were immediately frozen out of Lazio – none of the players were taken to Beijing to participate in the Supercoppa. During the season, Lotito ruled out the rebels returning to first team as he “did not want mercenaries at Lazio.” Unrest of such kind in the camp will destabilize any team and both Pandev and Ledesma have attempted to terminate their respective contracts and the former has taken legal action as well. Coach Davide Ballardini has shouldered the blame for this fiasco to a great extent. Often he has stated that it was his decision not to utilize Pandev and Ledesma, despite the reports of their battles over contracts. Ultimately the fiasco led to split loyalties at the club – Lotito refused to solely blame Ballardini for poor results and performances and rejected claims to sack him. The players couldn’t be blamed for supporting their teammates frozen out of the squad, but captain Tommaso Rocchi took Lotito’s side in the issue, whilst the 10-day ritiro imposed after the defeat to Milan would certainly not have improved the relation of the players with management. The fans were in uproar, staging several protests venting their anger at Rocchi, Lotito, Ballardini and sporting director Igli Tare.

On the pitch, adequate replacements were not found for Pandev and Ledesma – both were a vital clog in the Lazio machinery with 31 and 34 appearances respectively last season. The team’s season has turned from one of hope and anticipation into a damage limitation programme. The dissenti situation rumbles on and results on the pitch had been dire up until Week 16’s 1-0 win over Genoa. However, it can be argued that the result will hardly be a turning point for Lazio if these rumblings around the club continue and the win can be put down to a moment of brilliance from Aleksandar Kolarov and not enough pressure from Genoa rather than an impressive performance from Ballardini’s men. On the basis of the squad’s quality alone, Lazio should prevail over the likes of Livorno, Siena and Catania in the relegation battle, but the atmosphere at the club remains sour thanks to stubborn man management and the cliché of ‘too good to go down’ looks set to add further pressure to an unnecessary but now unavoidable relegation fight.

Lazio head to the San Siro to face Inter this Sunday. Given the strength of Inter’s squad, the home record of Jose Mourinho and Lazio’s problems, a draw would certainly feel like a cup victory for the Romans. Furthermore, mercurial striker Mauro Zarate is suspended for the match after picking up an unnecessary yellow card for protesting to the referee during the game against Genoa. In the midst of the Lotito circus, it will be interesting to see the mentality of the Lazio players when they face the Nerazzurri beast. Will they present a united front or will the in-fighting and pressure break the players?

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