With an exciting title race between AS Roma and Inter Milan taking centre stage, the relegation battle in Serie A is perhaps overlooked. Before critics argue that this is because high profile teams only get relegated following match fixing (or other blatant attempts at cheating), this year could be different! With five games left in a tight relegation battle, a surprise relegation candidate is Lazio, who look nervously down the table after a disappointing season. As things stand, Livorno sit at the foot of the table (with 26 pts), with Siena (29 pts) and Atalanta (31 pts) occupying the other relegation places. Just above the drop zone are Bologna (35 pts) and Lazio sit in 16th, only six points clear (37 pts).
Lazio, nicknamed ‘Aquile’ (meaning ‘The Eagles’) are statistically the sixth best supported club in Italy and have had an average attendance of nearly 40,000 this season. The club has had a host of stars in recent years, including Juan Sebastian Veron, Christian Vieri, Hernan Crespo, Paulo Di Canio, Alessandro Nesta and Pavel Nedved. Their most recent Scudetto (title win) was in the 1999-2000 season and despite problems on and off the pitch since then, they even overcame a points reduction to finish third in 2007.
However, after finishing 10th last season and crashing out in the Champions League group stages, director of sport, Walter Sabatini called the season ‘disastrous’ and resigned. Yet this year things only deteriorated. In the relegation zone at the beginning of February, having won 4 games all season, the club president desperately turned to a new manager, Edy Reja from Hajduk Split. In return for saving Lazio’s Serie A status, he is reportedly being offered a bonus which would take his first season’s salary to around €1 million.
His appointment, however, has made an immediate effect. He has surprised players and fans alike by recalling long forgotton squad members Stephan Lichtsteiner, Stefano Mauri and Cristian Ledesma (who even burst into tears following his first call up in over nine months), who now form the back-bone of the team. Despite threatening to quit following a dispute with the club president, he has guided the team to 4 victories in the 10 games he has been in charge, as well as draws against Fiorentina and AC Milan.
Perhaps Reja’s most crucial victory occurred last Saturday (10th April), a real ‘six pointer’ and potentialy pivotal match away at Bologna . At 2-0 down after only fifteen minutes, things were looking bleak for Lazio. However, a spirited comeback inspired by captain Tommaso Rocchi, and two goals in two minutes resulted in a 3-2 win for Lazio, lifting them above their relegation rivals.
Reja’s restoration project is by no means complete, and next up are local rivals AS Roma in the eagerly anticipated ‘Derby Della Capitale’, considered to be the fierciset rivalry in Italy. In 2004 the match was abandoned after riots broke out in the stadium, and the encounter has a history of large crowds and violence. Furthermore, with AS Roma leading Serie A by only a point, the stakes are equally high for both teams. Moreover, Lazio must also face Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan.
As for the other strugglers, bottom placed Livorno haven’t won in 14 and having only scored 7 times away from home this season, look good bets for an immediate return to Serie B. The rest is rather more uncertain; Lazio will take confidence from the fact that Bologna have slumped to 5 straight defeats, but will be concerned that both Siena and Atalanta are making final pushes for survival. Although they have the toughest run in, Atalanta have won 3 of their last 5 games and still have a ‘6 pointer’ with Bologna, which could hold their key to escape. Meanwhile, Siena, who looked dead and buried earlier in the season have only lost twice in ten games, which included a spirited fight back to draw 3-3 with Juventus. They will , however, have to collect vital points in challenging games against Palermo, Fiorentina and Inter.
With the relegation battle so closely fought and still promising plently of twists and turns, everything’s set for an exciting finish at both ends of the table. What a season it could be for Roma fans, wining the Scudetto and seeing Lazio fall from Serie A after 22 years!!