Football is all about fine margins. The smallest advantage has to be grasped with both hands. Some are obvious, such as the domestic program moving and making way for the Champions League fixtures. Sites such as Oddschecker listing all the wagering offers is another example, but obviously, one aimed at fans as opposed to clubs. People, usually with the benefit of hindsight, will go over a season and look for other ones, advantages and disadvantages. To see where it went wrong, or at least where it could have gone better.
The gap between Lazio and top place in Serie A is seemingly larger than a fine margin, but if the club are to step up next time out, then every possible avenue needs to be gone down, no stone should be left unturned. Next season, it will almost certainly be Champions League football, but the impact that the Europa League campaign, and more pertinently the Europa Conference one had on the club’s league form is very relevant, not just for Lazio but for European clubs in general.
The Europa League and Conference
It has taken the Europa League a number of years to finally find its feet, and indeed its place in the hearts and minds of the larger clubs’ players, owners, managers and fans. Two things that have helped has been the recent decision to make the winners qualify for the Champions League, and the relative strength of the four best leagues in Europe. Clubs from Italy, England, Spain and Germany are suddenly taking it seriously.
The same cannot yet be said of the Europa Conference League, though of course, this is only the competition’s second year. The issue a lot of clubs have is the fact that the Thursday evening games, often in cities and stadiums not used to hosting major football events, are a drain on a club’s squad, especially when it comes to the business end of the season, which is when leagues are decided and prizes are handed out.
The Aftermath of the Conference Games
After dropping into the Conference League, courtesy of a strange Europa League campaign which saw all four teams finish on the same number of points, I Biancocelesti were faced with a two-legged tie against Romanian outfit CFR 1907 Cluj. The first leg, played at the Stadio Olimpico heralded a 1–0 victory, despite Patric’s fifteenth-minute dismissal.
That is a long time to be playing with ten men, and though Sarri did rotate his squad it was still far from ideal preparation going into the weekend’s game away at Salernitana. The team produced a fairly routine win, however, to dispatch Paulo Sousa’s men courtesy of an immobile nine-minute brace.
Four days after their goalless trip to Transylvania, Lazio again reacted in a very professional manner, beating lowly Sampdoria with the only goal of the match, following that with another 1–0 win against table-topping Napoli.
Four days after the disappointing home leg against AZ Alkmaar, I Biancocelesti struggled to a goalless draw with Bologna, though after crashing out of the competition in the Netherlands, Sarri’s men again rallied, battling to a crucial 1–0 win against Champions League rivals Roma before breaking for the international games.
That would appear to show that the Conference League is not the distraction people feared. Though the dual fact that players were rested and rotated, and the club failed to progress does tell its own story. Should the club have gotten to the latter stages of the Champions League, no such resting or rotation would have taken place, and the depth of the squad – or lack of – would have been put to the test.
With three Italian clubs in the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time in almost two decades it is a good time for Lazio to be part of the renaissance of Serie A. The good news is that their European exploits this year, though disappointing, have not derailed their Champions League ambitions, which has got to be the number one goal for the club.