Fallen Giants - Lazio

reuters

Naz Majeed 

Mallorca, Chelsea, Lazio, and Lokomotiv Moscow.

It would take some kind of footballing augur to recognize the common thread that bound these four clubs, that they were the last semi-finalists of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, a competition that ended in 1999.

In a season that also featured Heerenveen, Hearts, and Haka, the final was staged in Villa Park, just over a month after Ryan Giggs scored against Arsenal in the last ever FA Cup Semi-final replay, at the same venue (and a week before United would beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final at the Nou Camp).

Lazio had gone into the game at the end of two very good seasons under Sven-Göran Eriksson, runners up to Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup in 1997/98 and winning the Coppa Italia in the same season, sending them into the Cup Winners’ Cup itself. That 1999 final was contested between Lazio and Mallorca, the Italians winning 2-1 with a late winner from the great Pavel Nedved. 

Lazio went then into 1999/00 - their centenary season - on a high, their first-ever European trophy added to their mantlepiece, and with a squad that alongside Nedved boasted the likes of Diego Simeone, Alessandro Nesta, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Dejan Stankovic, Juan Sebastian Veron, Roberto Mancini, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Marcelo Salas, and current boss Simone Inzaghi.

The Swedish coach Eriksson had stayed on at the club as well, and I Biancocelesti went 9 games unbeaten in Serie A at the start of the season, beating Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup in that period as well. A 4-1 “away” loss in the Rome derby in November was then followed by a goalless draw to Juventus, but then won 6 of their next 10 games.

 

Marcelo Salas, who had scored the winner against Manchester United, had been in outstanding form, a constant menace in a league that was renown for its defensive quality. Supported ably by Veron and Nedved, as well as the set-piece expertise of Mihajlovic, Salas and Lazio had they keys to unlock almost any backline, and exploited their strengths with ruthless efficiency, while Simeone guarded the backline that was marshalled by a young Nesta.

 

The best was yet to come, though as Lazio would go on to win 9 of the final 12 games, a run which included victory over Roma, and crucially, a 1-0 win at Juventus which allowed Eriksson’s side to close to gap on Juventus, who had held a 9 point lead with 8 games to go. Juventus would go on to lose two more games, while Lazio would only drop points once, a 3-3 draw with Fiorentina where Mihajlovic missed an 82nd-minute penalty.

It went to the final day of the season, then, and with Juventus losing to Perugia, Lazio’s 3-0 win over Reggina saw them leapfrog their rivals and clinch the title by a single point.

Their first and only title since 1974 along with their recent European triumphs might have sparked the start of a successful era for the Roman club, but circumstances would soon prove otherwise.

Having assembled such a pool of talent, Lazio’s parent company Cirio found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy, defaulting on loan payments, before being forced to suddenly put the club up for sale just before a Champions League tie in Belgrade. Fellow Serie A side Fiorentina had been recently relegated to the fourth division of Italian football after financial mismanagement, and there were fears that the same would befall Lazio, who had also found themselves being brought to court over transfer deals involving Jaap Stam and Gaizka Mendieta.

By 2002 they had lost Nesta, Simeone, Nedved, Salas, Skantovic, and Veron, and while Mancini was now manager, the financial troubles they faced meant that they were not able to reliably strengthen their side.

In 2004, Mancini departed for Inter, and two years later Lazio was involved in the Calciopoli scandal that saw Juventus relegated and a host of other clubs punished with points deductions. Originally slated for relegation to Serie B themselves, Lazio were able to have their punishment reduced to a deduction of 3 points from the 2006/07, while also being barred from entering the UEFA Cup that year. AC Milan, in stark contrast, won the Champions League that season.

Despite that deduction, Lazio finished third in the league, but that was the best they would do until 2013/14, a mid-table finish their most common ending to their seasons during that period.

They did, however, manage two Coppa Italia wins, including a victory over Roma in 2012/13. A third-placed finish in the league in 2014/15 allowed them another route back into the Champions League, but they would be handed a tough draw against Bayer Leverkusen, and the Italians were demoted to the Europa League.

Having made the group stage of the Champions League only once in 16 years, Lazio’s long-standing financial issues have stood in the way of them reclaiming what they feel is their rightful place at the top of the Italian football table.

Roma’s success in the meantime has been a painful thing for Lazio to accept, and as the spectre of Calciopoli continues to linger and loom, it is difficult to predict when and how Lazio might yet return to former glories.

This season, Lazio are a single point behind leaders Juventus, outstripping big-spending Inter for the right to be the ones to test Juventus. Under Simone Inzaghi, Lazio is playing a unique brand of football, utilizing the goalscoring prowess of Ciro Immobile, the craft of Luis Alberto, and the midfield presence of Sergej Milinković-Savić.

Nobody is sure if they will be given a chance to continue to test Juventus, though, with memories going back to 1915, when in a vastly different format to what it is today, Lazio was denied the trophy due to another suspension of Italian football (due to the first World War) and had to wait nearly 60 years to win the league again.

20 years on from their great centenary triumph, fans of I Biancocelesti will hope that history does not repeat itself again.