At first glance, the Serie A table looks the way it has done since the summer of 2011, with Juventus sitting comfortably atop the standings with very little competition from the peninsula’s other clubs. Milan and Inter continue to flounder, while the collapse of AS Roma from genuine contenders to a club with serious internal issues is almost as surprising as the slump endured by Napoli that has seen them slip as low as fifth heading into the current international break.
However, things are looking up for the game in Italy, with no fewer than four clubs in the Quarter Finals of the two European competitions and finally starting to reclaim some of the lustre it had lost in recent years. One club that has surprised many onlookers is Lazio, currently just a single point behind their capital city neighbours and hoping to snatch second place, thus earning an automatic berth in the Champions League next term.
With nine goals and six assists to his name, Felipe Anderson has rightly been lauded for his role in their resurgence, becoming a target for Liverpool, as discussed previously in this column. The Brazilian has been sensational, but this is far from a one-man team, and there are other players who deserve immense credit for helping the Biancocelesti to enjoy their best campaign in some time.
Indeed, when Antonio Conte arrived to overhaul a struggling Juventus almost four years ago, Lazio had finished fifth, two places above Gigi Delneri and the Turin giants and would go one better in the following season. Then came a seventh place finish in 2012-13, one made perfect thanks to a Coppa Italia Final victory over bitter rivals Roma and a run to the Quarter Final of the Europa League. Swiss coach Vladimir Petković would struggle to match those highs twelve months later, replaced in mid-season by Edy Reja as the club limped to a tenth place finish that saw the latter also lose his job.
READ: Madrid or Manchester? Decision Time For Ronaldo
Only six sides conceded more goals than Lazio last term, a dire record that was compounded by the sale of star player Hernanes to Inter, although in hindsight it seems the Nerazzurri were the losers of that particular €20 million deal. They invested that money wisely this summer, bringing in the likes of Dušan Basta and Marco Parolo, but the most important signing has arguably been that of Dutch defender Stefan de Vrij.
It had been widely expected that the former Feyenoord man would move to Manchester United, making his choice quite a coup by Lazio, and they have been rewarded handsomely for their investment. Standing at around 6’3” tall (1.89m), the 23 year old had impressed many at last summer’s World Cup, as his commanding performances helped the Netherlands reach the Semi Finals where they lost on penalties to Argentina.
He has continued that form into the domestic campaign, averaging 1.8 tackles, 6.5 clearances and 3.8 interceptions per game, trailing only Chievo’s Dario Dainelli in that latter category according to WhoScored.com. The club have kept thirteen clean sheets in De Vrij's twenty-five appearances this term, a total which matches the total they managed in the entire 2013-14 campaign, while perhaps the most telling statistic comes in the games he has missed. In three games without the Dutchman, Lazio have conceded every time, failing to win on each occasion, clearly underlining his importance to the side.
His partnership with January arrival Mauricio has looked particularly solid, but it is his working relationship with Stefano Pioli that has been the most successful. The coach was an excellent defender throughout his own playing career, spending time with Parma, Juventus and Fiorentina, while perhaps only the incredible amount of top quality defenders Italy produced in the 1980’s and 1990’s prevented him from receiving greater recognition.
The 49-year-old has brought the best from his intelligent, assured charge. Pioli has visibly changed the player for the better in the time they have spent together, able to dispense advice and insight to De Vrij, with the younger man clearly eager to learn from the experienced coach. He knew that moving to Serie A would see him maximise his potential, turning down offers from England and Spain because “for a defender, Italy is ideal for improving, so I chose the Lazio.”
With reports of Manchester United rekindling their interest, it may be a choice he has to make again this summer, but for now Lazio – and coach Pioli – seems to be providing the perfect environment for Stefan de Vrij.