Thursday Mar 30, 2017  
     
 
  20/04/2015: Under the Microscope: The Status Quo
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Lazio's eight-game winning streak came to an abrupt halt at the weekend and it should not come as a surprise to anyone. Juventus will not come anywhere close to the points tally they accumulated under Antonio Conte last season, but they have improved this year. They got off to winning ways at the beginning of the season and have never looked back. They effectively had the league sewn up in 2014. They are genuine contenders for the Champions League and after this weekend's result, clear favourites for the Coppa Italia. You could not say that about Conte's Juventus or, for that matter, many teams in the history of Serie A.

When you rack up eight wins on the trot in the league, you will fancy your chances against anyone, but Saturday evening should be a reminder to us all that we are battling to settle places in Europe with Roma, Napoli, Fiorentina and others. We were not making a last-gasp bid to hunt down the likely champions.

Stefano Pioli was asked in his post-match press conference whether he regretted losing three of our opening four games - a suggestion that a poor start to the season may have prevented a Scudetto bid - but you have to take into consideration what Max Allegri would have done at Juventus had Lazio started the season better. Many of the points Juventus have dropped this season have been dropped immediately before or after a big midweek fixture. Many of the points Juventus have dropped were points they could afford to drop. You could argue that they dropped points in the Champions League fighting to get ahead in Serie A. 

The way Juventus have gone about their business in Serie A has skewed the league table. It looks as though the gap to Juventus could be closed in the near future but the league table is deceiving. If Lazio remain in second place in Serie A from now until the end of the season, then the conclusion we should draw is that Lazio were the second best team in Serie A this season. The conclusion we should avoid making is that Lazio are the second best team in Italy and are not that far away from mounting an assault on Juventus next season. That sentiment creeped into the discussion before Juventus but it should stop now. There are other factors that need to be taken into consideration.

There can be no doubt that European competition has impacted on the league performance of others while we have flourished as we have been spared that burden. Although we have definitely improved as a team this season, I would stop short of saying we are a better football team than some of our close competitors. We will learn more about ourselves come the 24th May with the Derby della Capitale, with Napoli and then Juventus in the Coppa to follow. Unless Napoli make the Europa League final and are under par come their final round encounter with us in Serie A, we will learn plenty from those three games, especially if those games decide spots in Europe. It is the perfect end to the season with a view to improving next season.

In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned and concerns that need to be addressed. Lazio's performance against Juventus was far from disastrous, but with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the game was virtually over after 28 minutes. In truth, Lazio have been struggling a little in recent weeks and much of it has to do with uncertainty.

In October, I wrote an article on Pioli's philosophy and how he had he a clear hierarchy based on the way he wanted his Lazio team to play the game and how that was helping us pick up points. Since the turn of the year, we've seen Pioli switch between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 depending on who is available with the aim of getting Lazio's best eleven players out on the pitch. Pioli's vision has always been clear and Lazio have gone from strength to strength as a result. Until recently.

The return of several players from injury, however, has led Pioli to send out some mixed messages with his squad selection. In the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi against Napoli, Pioli fielded Edson Braafheid at left-back and kept Senad Lulic - Lazio's big game player - on the bench. Braafheid was turned inside out by the Napoli frontline and Lulic came off the bench to score the winning goal. Four days later, Braafheid was dropped in favour of Lulic who received his first start at left-back under Pioli. Fast forward to Juventus, Braafheid is back at left-back and Lulic is in the centre of the park. It is strange that Pioli did not have the confidence to play Braafheid in a home game with Empoli but had the confidence to change a team that won 4-0 a week ago and start him in Turin. 

Knowing Pioli has strived to get his best eleven players on the pitch and knowing he sees the 4-2-3-1 as a more offensive system than the 4-3-3, we can only assume that Pioli's decision to sacrifice Antonio Candreva was influenced by the desire to set Lazio up more defensively against Juventus. Our approach to the game, however, was as aggressive as always. In addition, Candreva has arguably been our most consistent attacking player in recent weeks which makes his omission even more puzzling. In short, why did Pioli change a winning team?

If the decision to revert to 4-3-3 was in response to the absence of both Stefan de Vrij and Marco Parolo, then the change in system did not have the intended effect. For the first time in his Lazio career, Danilo Cataldi looked out of his depth. Lucas Biglia disappointed in the defensive phase of play in yet another big game and Lorik Cana and Mauricio played as if they had just been introduced to each other. On top of all that, Etrit Berisha - who has been impressive of late - made way for Federico Marchetti complete with broken nose who could have done better on both Juventus goals. Marchetti seemed to play with fear which calls into question his selection.

Ultimately, Juventus are a more accomplished football team than Stefano Pioli's Lazio but our Champions League qualification hinges on our ability to learn lessons quickly. We have managed to do that all season long and to be fair to Pioli, he corrected his mistakes at half-time, but for the first time this season, Pioli appears uncertain in general and if Lazio aspire to step it up another level next season, our manager needs to find a way of handling major absentees.

Losing de Vrij and Parolo may not have been the difference between Juventus and Lazio on Saturday - it may not have made much of a difference at all - but Lazio played as though there are no solutions to their absences. Add European competition to the mix next season, and Pioli will have more injuries than ever to contend with. Pioli's job can only get harder.
Author: Cathal Mullan
 
 
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