x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Lazio peering down from their perch

A 2-1 victory over Cagliari in Rome ensured Lazio remained clear at the top of the Serie A table after eight matches, and indeed set a new club record for fine starts to a campaign.

Lazio have a live eagle on their staff, a beaked, feathered representation of the symbol on their badge. Just as Benfica, the Portuguese club who have a similar emblem, fly the graceful bird of prey around their Lisbon arena before matches, Lazio decided at the start of this season they would like to do the same.

Trouble is that Olimpia, as the creature has been named, sometimes suffers stage fright.

On Sunday, Olimpia refused to take flight. No matter, 11 higher-paid employees of what has become a brittle institution over the past 10 years, did.

A 2-1 victory over Cagliari in Rome ensured Lazio remained clear at the top of the Serie A table after eight matches, and indeed set a new club record for fine starts to a campaign.

Nineteen points at this stage eclipses even the way Lazio embarked on the 1999/2000 Serie A season, the one they completed with a second-ever scudetto for the sky-blue half of Rome to celebrate. Under Sven-Goran Eriksson that season, they took 18 points from their first eight matches.

Hence the inevitable line of questioning towards Edy Reja, the head coach, after Lazio, thanks to goals from Sergio Floccari and Stefano Mauri, recorded their sixth triumph so far. Was a league title now possible, Reja was asked?

"The scudetto is really not our concern," he replied, suggesting the idea that Lazio's place in the Italian hierarchy remains well outside the traditional favourites is a perception he wants preserved. Reja was able to summon support from perhaps his oldest friend in football, Fabio Capello, the manager of England, too.

"For them to get into the Champions League would be a great achievement," Capello told an Italian radio station. "But I'm very happy for my old mate, Edy."

Reja and Capello were contemporaries as players at the SPAL club - the Societa Polisportiva Ars et Labor - in Emilio-Romagna in the 1960s. They have stayed close as Capello's career soared and Reja's bumped along as a footballer and then gained more prominence, and some successes, as a coach.

But, like Olimpia the eagle, Reja will be wary of vertigo. Two seasons ago, in charge of Napoli, he found himself top of the table in the early weeks of the season, only for a winter plummet to follow. He left Napoli in March 2009.

Just under 12 months later, after a brief spell at Hajduk Split in Croatia, he was invited to save Lazio from relegation. They were one spot off the bottom of the table. Reja levered them up to 12th by the season's end.

So his contract was extended, but his tangible room for improvement limited: the only significant newcomer has been the Brazilian Hernanes, who plays behind the strikers and is given to confident predictions about his own impact on matches and Lazio's success in them.

Largely, though, Reja has got the best out of what he inherited. Cristian Ledesma, the midfielder, was coaxed out of a contract dispute, Mauri no longer gets booed by fans.

So evidently, this is not a Lazio in the image of Eriksson's champions, who were prodigal spenders, who expensively compiled a large, star-studded squad - dotted with surnames like Veron, Nedved, and Crespo - and then ran into trouble because of the accumulated debts of that, wild, extravagant era.

This Lazio are of a more austere epoch. They are industrious, hard-working and still pretty skint. Reja is probably right, that the business end of the title race will not directly concern them.

But the immediate horizon is far more interesting for Lazio fans. In 12 days' time, they meet struggling Roma in the derby. Hernanes has foreseen a goal from himself and three points for his team. Whether the fury of the occasion scares or inspires Olimpia remains to be seen.

sports@thenational.ae