It’s buttock-clenching time for Lazio and Lecce, which used all their bonuses to cruise toward their respective objectives with unsatisfactory results in their most recent fixtures.
Serie A Week 35 – Friday 12 May 2023 – Stadio Olimpico | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Lazio abated just as they were on the brink of clinching a top-four finish, although their struggles against top competition are nothing new. They were bound to regress to the mean after a glorious run, but it surely would have been better if they put up more of a fight against Inter and Milan. Instead, they continue to have trouble getting off the mat when they get smacked in the face early.
They aren’t as deep as other contenders, and they solved that in the worst possible fashion, ungracefully bowing out of two continental competitions by exerting minimal effort. To each their own, but they could have gone far in both, especially in the European Conference League. They evidently thought so, but there’s no counter-evidence it would have cost them their objective domestically. The Champions League race is less than formidable this year, especially with Juventus poised to get KO’d in the courtrooms. The Bianconeri surely did everybody else a solid by taking down Atalanta last week.
Their schedule down the stretch is creampuff-y, so they might have looked ahead and relaxed a little, perhaps considering themselves in a cushy spot even if they lost to direct rivals. That will likely prove true, but you never know, and it scratched their reputation. The fact that it happened in a three-game week lends credence to the belief that they aren’t built to fare to the best of their capabilities on short turnarounds.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether this version of the squad is the epitome of Sarrismo or if it’s dead since it’s too pragmatic and has less oomph. The high-flying iteration seen at Napoli will be mighty tough to replicate as it was contingent upon the players. Having a pure goal poacher instead of a demon like Dries Mertens, which gave the Azzurri incredible versatility and unpredictability upfront, is already a diriment enough difference. His Partenopei sides were much pacier, while his current one is more plodding, but it comes to the contributors. The ones he has now are more cerebral and calculated than fast and agile.
On the other hand, the gaffer always built very stingy defenses when he was given time and got his message across. They were top of the league in those stats before the last four games. It came more from scheme and strategy than talent, as they are okay but not elite. Plus, the manager successfully upped the work rate of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto to unprecedented levels, especially for the mercurial Spaniard.
Moreover, they had to become a little more solid because Ciro Immobile, amid recurrent injuries and the inevitable battle with Father Time, hasn’t been as prolific as in the past. Felipe Anderson has been surprisingly good as a false-nine, but they don’t have a 30-goal striker, and that has naturally forced the manager to adjust. Mattia Zaccagni picked up part of the slack as he took a leap and is almost uncatchable when he has a sliver of room on the flank, and he has perfected the art of cutting back and finishing with great technique. Their two midfield wizards could perhaps do a little bit more scoring-wise, and they are still great when they get in firing position, but their posture and level of aggression is a push-and-pull affair that has to factor in multiple aspects.
They’ll be in for a jam-packed summer if they do qualify for the Champions League as likely. The future of Milinkovic-Savic will be on the forefront in the early going, and he’s rumored to be more likely to leave than to pen an extension, but the more intricate matter is that they’ll need to bring in pieces in several roles to build a respectable. The problem is that the possible sale of the Serb won’t fetch as much as in normal circumstances, and, since they are usually averse to spending too much, and the potential UCL prize money probably won’t affect their MO too much, they’ll have to be clever and creative. After fumbling a few windows, much-maligned director Igli Tare will have a chance to prove his worth if he re-ups his expiring deal.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Provedel; Lazzari, Casale, Romagnoli, Hysaj; Milinkovic-Savic, Marcos Antonio, Alberto, Felipe Anderson, Immobile, Zaccagni.
Doubts: Lazzari/Marusic, Marcos Antonio/Vecino, Zaccagni/Pedro.
Injury Report: Vecino (thigh strain) – Questionable; Cataldi (calf edema) – Out.
Lecce seemed out of the woods when they defeated Udinese at the beginning of last week, snapping out of an excessively long dry spell, but they followed it up with an honorable defeat at the hands of Juventus away and a terrible loss to Hellas Verona really screwing the pooch. The Scaligeri have crawled out of the bottom three, and they are lucky Spezia are in even worse shape; otherwise, they’d be in big trouble. They’ll face them in a death match next week and then finish the season versus Monza and Bologna, which don’t have a lot to play for.
They fell into a lull when they thought they were gucci midway through the season, as often happens to newly promoted sides that start better than expected. Some complacency settled in, plus the opponents took them more seriously and studied them better, finding ways to stymie their creative outlets. They have had basically the same XI for three/fourths of the season and zhuzhed it up only recently.
Ultimately, the biggest blemish was rolling the dice twice at the pivotal no.9 role, as a shrewd goal poacher often takes the chestnuts out of the fire for relegation struggles. Assan Ceesay and Lorenzo Colombo are fine players, and each has had his moment, but they aren’t as prolific as their team needs them to be.
Gabriel Strefezza and his nifty strikes carried them for a long time, but then opposing defenders figured out that the rest of the offense would fall off a cliff if they keyed on stopping him. He still occasionally comes through, and he’s a great charismatic leader and hub, but not as frequently as he used to do since he was poised for a 15-goal campaign at some point. He’ll probably smash the double-digit threshold, which is a corker in a side that’s not explosive.
They have paid the price for inconsistency and seesawing form up front, as Federico Di Francesco and Lameck Banda suffer from those defects too, but they have partially made up for that with their robustness in the back. Wladimiro Falcone is great, Federico Baschirotto is one of the most muscular defenders in the league, and Samuel Umtiti bounced back nicely after a few rough seasons. In addition, midfielders Morten Hjulmand and Alexis Blin excel more in the passive phase than on the other end, although the former has dished a few assists thanks to his velvety touch. He’s bound to be poached by a big team looking for a deep-lying playmaker that’s not necessarily an exquisite distributor but brings the hustle way more than a purely technical player would do.
With so many defensive-minded players in the lineup, Marco Baroni dared a little and adapted Remi Oudin to box-to-box, which worked well. His frame helps him hold his own in the trenches, plus he usually roams on the other side of the pitch compared to Strefezza, making the formation less lopsided. He has yet to contribute to a goal since becoming a regular, but it feels like it’s coming. It could be a turning point for his career as well, as he wasn’t exactly shining as a winger.
The tweak has come at the expense of Joan Gonzalez, who was brilliant for a few months, but the squad needed a jolt, and he could land on a bigger club too since he’s a very modern and well-rounded midfielder.
There are just four games left, but a four-point lead can dissolve in a blink of an eye, especially with a head-to-head match just around the corner. They’ll want to approach it in the best possible way. They’ll face an uphill battle in this one, but they have to seize any single opportunity they have, even if it’s a long shot.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Falcone; Gendrey, Baschirotto, Umtiti, Gallo; Blin, Hjulmand, Oudin; Strefezza, Colombo, Banda.
Doubts: Gallo/Pezzella, Colombo/Ceesay, Banda/Di Francesco.
Injury Report: Dermaku (sports hernia).
Lazio Win – Over 2.5 Goals