As the bottle-necking around the Champions League places continues, a quick glance down the wrong end of the table shows two sides who not so long ago were regularly vying for those European slots.
Udinese and Lazio have both endured awful seasons, and far from gazing longingly at what once was, they still have a very real battle on their hands to retain their Serie A status. The picture could be worse, it could, and has been, so much better. La Aquile lie fourth bottom, three points ahead of the drop zone with the Zebrette a place and a point further ahead. Yet, after relative self-destruction from both parties from the achievements of last season, the unthinkable is very much a reality.
The turn of a new decade produces a fascination to flick through the history books to see what was happening ten years ago, almost as if it was centuries previous. For Lazio, it might as well be. This time ten years ago the Biancocelesti were marching towards a second Scudetto in the clubs history, with one of the most expensively assembled squads of the era. They were marshalled by an astute and respected Sven Goran Eriksson, backed by an eager and ambitious President in Sergio Cragnoti. Those were the days. This weekend Lazio travel to Sampdoria, in desperate need of points to lift them away from the drop zone. Edy Reja’s men come into the game on the back of one win in five; their playing resources, a pale imitation of the riches it was once blessed with.
Although you don’t have to trawl quite as far back as the start of the Millenium to chart Lazio’s failings this season. Saturday’s clash at the Luigi Ferraris is a re-run of last season’s Coppa Italia final which the Romans went on to win, boosting an impressive season in which Delio Rossi’s enterprising side finished comfortably in mid-table. Instead of kicking on from there, Rossi was disposed of and messy contractual wrangling saw the Biancocelesti shorn of Goran Pandev and Cristian Ledesma. With Lorenzo De Silvestri and David Rozenhal leaving the Olimpico, and veteran striker Julio Cruz being the only fresh face, progression was always going to be a challenge.
So it is no wonder the natives are restless. Last week’s home game against Fiorentina was played out in front of a deserted Olimpico after the Lazio faithful spoke with their feet in anger at President Lotito’s handling of the club. This boycott came just weeks after around 1000 Ultra’s stormed the training complex to voice similar concerns, and raise disquiet over the appointment of Edy Reja. Despite a win in his first outing, things have not gotten a great deal better under Reja, who has been re-armed in the January transfer window with the signings of Sergio Floccari and Thomas Hitzelsperger. These players were added to a roster which possesses too much quality to be loitering around the basement, but as the old saying goes, you’re never too good to go down.
That is also a sentiment that should be shouted from the rooftops of the Friuli, where more alarmingly Udinese have fallen from seventh last time around. A win in Atalanta will put a seven point gap between them and the relegation places, although dropped points could make the matter very interesting with games against Palermo, Roma, Fiorentina and Juventus coming up immediately afterwards. At least the Bianconeri can count on Antonio Di Natale who has commendably managed to be in charge of the Capocannoniere, yet at the other end, Gianni De Biasi or his successor, Pasquale Marino, have been able to tighten a porous defence. Neither Udinese or Lazio should go down, but after contriving to get themselves in this position in the first place, take nothing for granted.
Back up at the right end of the league, it’s a pivotal week for Milan. On Saturday night they travel to Roma in a clash which will decide who pursues Inter down the home straight, before flying to Manchester for the second coming of Christ. Il Lupi’s runaway train impression has slightly hit the buffers after being dumped out of Europe and throwing away a two-goal advantage at Napoli, but such is their form they see themselves as Inter’s main rivals and will be hoping to capitalise on pre-occupations in the il Diavolo camp who play Manchester United just three days later.
It’s a niggly conundrum for Leonardo; full strength at the Olimpico or Old Trafford? Too many of his playing staff have excess miles in their limbs to be fresh for both, the European front is likely to take precedent. Certainly Alexandre Pato will be preserved for the trip to face Manchester United with the tie delicately poised at 3-2 to the Premier League champions.
After Wayne Rooney’s double did for Milan at the San Siro, a turnaround would have been akin to the reappearance of Mary and Joseph’s eldest, but with Ronaldinho resurrected, Rio Ferdinand injured, Rooney touch-and-go, and David Beckham good for a headline, we await a miracle.