14 February ~ Lazio had the most successful season in their history ten years ago. With eight games left to play in the 1999-2000 season, they came from ten points behind Juventus to win the Scudetto. They also won the Coppa Italia – completing their first and only league and cup double. With Sven Goran Eriksson in charge of a team that included Alessandro Nesta, Pavel Nedved, Juan Sebastian Veron, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Roberto Mancini, the future looked bright. But a lot has changed in the past decade.
After beating Inter in the Italian Supercup in August and winning their first two games of the season, Lazio's form has crashed. With only four league wins this season, they currently sit in the relegation zone. The problems began in the summer, when Goran Pandev and Cristian Ledesma – the club's two best players last season – sought pay rises. Lazio refused to meet these wage demands and instead decided to "nail them to the bench for the year". The players were excluded from training with their team-mates and were sent instead to train under the supervision of a new coach, who was hired especially for this purpose. Despite Lazio's plummeting form in their absence, Claudio Lotito, the owner, insisted neither were fit to play for the club.
With the season only a few months old, Pandev made a written request to be included in first team training. He had been valued at £17million by the club in the summer and argued that, by freezing him out of the squad, Lazio had violated the terms of their contract. His request was not met by the club, so he lodged an official complaint with the Italian league. In late December an arbitration committee ruled in Pandev's favour and rescinded his contract. Now a free agent, he signed for Jose Mourinho's Inter in the January transfer window.
"This is far from over... I'm not giving up," said an irate Lotito, who announced plans to sue the League in a civil-employment tribunal. Despite his bravado, the Lazio owner did learn something from the experience. With Pandev transferred and Lazio fans increasingly angered by the club's form, Lotito paved a way for Ledesma's return to the team and sought to salvage his own reputation in the process.
Lotito had been criticised heavily for marginalising the players but he was also protected from the fan's ire by Lazio manager Davide Ballardini. By insisting that he had taken the decision to discard the rebel pair, Ballardini took some of the responsibility away from his boss. But, ironically, this act of loyalty was his downfall. Earlier this week Lotito sacked Ballardini and announced that his new appointment Edoardo Reja would have "carte blanche" to pick Ledesma. By orchestrating the manager's departure and the player's renaissance into one, Lotito managed to pass the buck onto his departed manager.
Reja has worked wonders with Napoli in the past but his job at Lazio will not be an easy one. If they manage to beat Parma today it will only be Lazio's second away win of the season. They might look like they have too many good players to go down but opting not to play them could yet be their downfall.