A familiar ritual opened proceedings at the Olimpico on Sunday as the Lazio team to take on Atalanta was announced to the expectant crowd. As usual, the tifosi took this time to express which players were currently judged to be performing well, and who has fallen out of favour. For example Marius Stankevicius, although only a substitute, was booed mercilessly after a poor performance in last weekend’s capitulation to Siena, whereas Miroslav Klose’s name was bellowed out joyously by all laziale. Opinions are often divided within the Curva Nord, but recently there has been a sense of unity as all join together in booing the last name to be announced: Edy Reja.
The humiliation in Tuscany was more than enough reason for the Lazio support to resume protests against Reja’s regime, one that has seen four consecutive derby defeats, poor home form and consistently negative tactics. For neutrals it may seem bizarre that a club in Serie A, where managers come and go like buses, has persisted with a coach so clearly unpopular amongst the supporters. The reason is fairly simple; his achievements are impressive.
The former Napoli boss took over at a time of crisis. Following the turbulent yet enthralling reign of Delio Rossi, Lazio had chosen Davide Ballardini to improve on the previous season where the club, although winning the Coppa Italia, had only managed a tenth place finish. Fast forward seven months and the results of Ballardini’s work were a derby defeat, an embarrassing Europa League campaign, and 18th place in Serie A.
Reja entered at one of the most desperate points in recent history for Lazio, as relegation seemed a realistic prospect for the club. Under Zio Edy’s leadership, the team rallied and fought their way back up the table to finish in twelfth place, eleven points clear of the drop zone. The following season, a Hernanes-inspired side were a revelation as they set the pace with AC Milan in the opening months before eventually only missing out on a Champions League place due to goal difference. Not everyone was convinced, however. Although Reja had taken Lazio to their best league finish in four years, many fans were calling for him to be replaced over the summer in reaction to his negative football and apparent inability to win the Derby della Capitale. Four attempts had resulted in four defeats, and the pressure was on ahead of October’s crunch match.
The dramatic 2-1 win for Lazio in this season’s opening derby was a liberation for Reja, who sprinted from the bench to the Curva after Miroslav Klose’s last-minute winner. It seemed that with a derby win, the fans may finally come around to Reja’s vision. However, the dull football played by his team all season has increased demands for his resignation.
It may seem harsh on Reja that statistically his work has been very impressive, and yet he is openly heckled by his own fans. Casting an eye over the last ten years, he is by no means the least popular Lazio manager. Both Ballardini and Giuseppe Papadopulo felt the wrath of an unhappy Curva Nord, whereas Delio Rossi was probably saved by some historic derby wins, including a 3-0 victory in 2006 and thrilling 4-2 win in 2009. Roberto Mancini was given a head start in the popularity stakes, having played for the club, and his popularity and success were also aided by a squad filled with world-class talents such as Dejan Stankovic, Jaap Stam and Diego Simeone.
It could be argued that Reja has made the most of Lazio’s current squad, in which Hernanes and Klose are the only accomplished attackers. Opinions will remain divided, but the possibility of an attacking midfielder arriving in January and the approaching return of Stefano Mauri could lead to some more aesthetically pleasing performances. Add in a second derby victory at the beginning of March, and ‘Uncle Edy’ could finally earn the respect of the ever-demanding tifosi.