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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Coppa Italia: Lazio's Simone Inzaghi yet another Sven-Goran Eriksson student to taste managerial success

On Wednesday night, Lazio take on Gennaro Gattuso’s AC Milan in Leg 2 of semi-final, which could be making of season for either club and for either young manager

Lazio have made progress under Simone Inzaghi, in black, with a small budget and few superstars. Alessandro di Meo / EPA
Lazio have made progress under Simone Inzaghi, in black, with a small budget and few superstars. Alessandro di Meo / EPA

The most successful manager of Lazio’s history celebrated his 70th birthday this month.

Sven-Goran Eriksson was always likely to be a serene septuagenarian. Calmness is his forte.

As the former manager of clubs from Gothenburg to Guangzhou and of countries from Ivory Coast to England contemplates his retirement date, he can enjoy a little congratulation on what looks an impressive legacy.

That is, as a teacher.

His students are turning out to be A-grade managers, especially those who were a part of the squad that won the Serie A title in 2000. Under Eriksson, most of them had collected a Cup Winners' Cup title a year earlier. These were not – are not – the sort of prizes a middle-ranking club like Lazio take for a granted.

Top of the class was Diego Simeone, inspirational guide of the modern Atletico Madrid revival. Perhaps a little surprisingly, he was an avowed disciple of the apparently understated Eriksson.

“I always admire his ability to be unfazed by almost anything,” Simeone said of Eriksson, “and he taught me a lot about how to approach games.”

Simeone’s Atletico, Primera Liga champions in 2014 and twice Uefa Champions League finalists, are favourites for the Europa League this season. It is a competition in which another famed Lazio star from the class of 2000 is managing his latest project.

Sven-Goran Eriksson has enjoyed plenty of managerial success around the world. Johannes Eisele / AFP
Sven-Goran Eriksson has enjoyed plenty of managerial success around the world. Johannes Eisele / AFP

Roberto Mancini is hopeful of correcting his reputation as a coach who is better suited to domestic competitions than to European ones. Now at Zenit Saint-Petersburg, Mancini can – like Simeone – look anything but unfazed on the touchline. But the Italian, who played under Eriksson at Sampdoria and Lazio, has always called himself a graduate of the Eriksson school.

“I worked with him for nine years and talked to him a lot when I started in coaching," Mancini told this writer, “although we are different in some ways: he’s more calculating in his approach, I’m more instinctive.”

Then in his 30s, Mancini managed Lazio soon after Eriksson had left to become England’s first foreign manager in 2001. The Eriksson reign had been free-spending, debt-building. The Lazio a young Mancini took over, resourceful and brave, were in danger of going bust.

The trail of stars who left in that period included formidable leaders: Alessandro Nesta, Juan Sebastian Veron and Simeone. There was also Sinisa Mihajlovic, a dressing-room strongman who became a coach of stern opinions and a long list of Serie A jobs.

Mancini went on to win three Serie A titles as Inter Milan manager before overseeing Manchester City’s first Premier League title more than five years ago.

There were also quieter students: in the slipstream of Mancini and Simeone, Sergio Conceicao and Simone Inzaghi are men on the rise.

As a player, Portugal international Conceicao was an industrious and gifted winger. As a manager, he made his name at Nantes in France. At Porto, he has made the league title a realistic target this season, although the Champions League thrashing by Liverpool in the first leg of the club’s last-16 tie was chastening.

Roberto Mancini is in charge of Zenit Saint-Petersburg after managing teams such as Inter Milan and Manchester City. Anton Vaganov / Reuters
Roberto Mancini is in charge of Zenit Saint-Petersburg after managing teams such as Inter Milan and Manchester City. Anton Vaganov / Reuters

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Meanwhile, Inzaghi has imbued the current Lazio with the sort of confidence they perhaps last had when the club were extravagant buyers of the best talent. This time they have achieved top-three status in Serie A on a smaller budget, without superstars in the line-up, and with a shrewd former favourite in charge.

As a player, Inzaghi was a fine finisher and a loyal 'laziale', serving the club over two spells in his career – in the wealthy period and in leaner times. He initially took over as coach in what looked like a caretaker role. But promising signs of his skilled man-management and tactical nous meant he has stayed, for approaching two years.

Inzaghi’s Lazio sit above Roma, Inter and AC Milan in the table, and they go into eight key days with eyes on two cups to go with the Supercoppa they collected in August. They face Dynamo Kiev in the last 16 of the Europa League next Thursday.

On Wednesday night, they take on Gennaro Gattuso’s renascent Milan in the semi-final of the Coppa Italia. The first leg finished goalless.

The second could be the making of the season for either club and for either of the young managers.