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Nov 16, 2010

Zarate reborn as Lazio return to form

So that's how you bounce back from a couple of defeats and get back on the right track. That's how you lift yourselves out of a mounting wave of scepticism as strong as the tide of praise that had lifted you to the top of the Serie A. That's how Lazio, deploying a new strategy scented with fragrances of talent and unpredictability that contained echoes of relatively old times, beat Napoli and relaunched their challenge for a Champions League place or, perish the thought, the Scudetto.

All of this on a weekend blessed with two other high-profile clashes - Juventus v Roma and Inter v Milan - which produced unpredictable scores and predictably bitter reactions: despite video evidence from an ever-increasing number of cameras, sometimes it seems football is still a matter of 'he said, she said' whenever the award of a dubious penalty is witnessed, as was the case on Saturday night at Turin's Stadio Olimpico. But where was I? Oh, Lazio.

Beaten twice in three days earlier in the week, the first defeat a painful 2-0 loss at 'home' to Roma and the second a feeble effort at bottom club Cesena, they were at the kind of crossroads sides in Serie A seem to reach at all too frequent intervals each season. Given the pressure cooked up by the constant and sometimes trivial attention of three national sports dailies and endless call-in shows on local television stations, who have lowered football debate to a form of shouting contest Italian politics is also known for, lose again to Napoli, a team on the upswing after a couple of good wins, and Lazio would have been swallowed by the pack of chasers, never to be heard from again for the rest of the season.

And win they did, showing resilience and tactical astuteness borne out of coach Edy Reja's determination not to let criticism influence his choices. Reja had been heavily censored for his decision to rest some of his best players for the midweek jaunt up to Cesena; free of the burden of European competition, Lazio were probably expected by some of their fans to stick with their best XI throughout the season, and gasps could be heard around the tiny Cesena press box when team sheets for that game were distributed.

But it wasn't the return of four regulars on Sunday that paved the way for Lazio's win over Napoli. What made the difference, at least in the attacking third of the pitch, was Reja's decision to employ Mauro Zarate in a more central role. The Argentinean had unwillingly become a symbol of Lazio's struggles in the past year: his mercurial style of play is always going to attract admirers just as his stubbornness in holding the ball too much will always turn off disciples of the beautiful game viewed as the choreographed, harmonic movement of ten individuals across the pitch.

Zarate, who'd spent a few months on loan from Qatar's Al Sadd to Birmingham City in early 2008, had joined Lazio on another loan later that year, a move that became permanent in the summer of 2009. A prolific goalscorer early on for the Biancocelesti, his form had dipped after a while and in fact his last goal in front of the home fans had come on September 27 of last year. An all too familiar combination of pouting, grumblings about a new contract and veiled threats to seek a transfer had all combined to make the last few months difficult for Zarate, whose brother and agent, Sergio, had also spent some time in Italy in the early 1990s.

He had clashed with Reja during pre-season training, and had started the campaign in indifferent form. While the coach was trying to find the ideal shape for a side that had been gifted with the unexpected arrival of Brazilian playmaker Hernanes in early August, Zarate was going in and out of the starting line-up. Lazio were playing mainly in a 4-3-1-2 with Stefano Mauri, the captain and best performer so far, shifting on the left between an advanced position in support of the forwards and a more controlled role alongside Cristian Ledesma, Argentinean-born but a member of Cesare Prandelli's Italy squad for the first time this week, and Cristian Brocchi.

Zarate was paired with main striker and target man Sergio Floccari at first, then pushed wide right in the 4-2-3-1 Reja adopted for three games. The sight of Zarate, an extremely attack-minded player, doing an Eto'o and tracking back to help right-back Stephan Lichsteiner in those matches was something to behold, but it couldn't go on much longer, and the encounter with Napoli on Sunday presented Reja with the opportunity to again shuffle his deck of cards.

Starting with a 4-3-1-2, the Lazio coach asked Floccari to move to a more withdrawn position and pushed Zarate as the more advanced player, playing on the shoulders of Napoli's slow-footed back three, ready to pounce on through balls or passes played over the top, which is just what happened for Lazio's first goal when Zarate was sent through by Mauri's lob and pushed the ball past Morgan De Sanctis.

While Hernanes - one of those rested in Cesena as he'd gone almost a year without a break - spent most of the time on the right flank when Napoli had possession, preventing wing-back Luigi Vitale from pushing forward, Zarate kept his position through the centre, posing constant problems with his movement and the threat of running onto through-balls that Lazio's midfielders and even Floccari attempted to create at every opportunity.

In fact, it was the danger posed by Zarate after a brilliant run by Hernanes which made Lazio's second goal. So many Napoli defenders converged on the Argentinean, who was cutting in from the right, that all he had to do was lay the ball off for Floccari to side foot it past De Sanctis from just inside the area. Floccari celebrated as if he could not believe Zarate had actually passed the ball instead of shooting, but he should have known. Wasn't it him, after all, sitting down for lunch with his team-mate in a Sky Italia commercial mocking the Argentinean last summer, in which Zarate is seen passing salt and pepper to Sky employees having their meal at a cafeteria then turning to a nodding Floccari and telling him, "and they say I never pass"?

After the game, Reja admitted he may have found the best role for Zarate, whom he said was struggling to adapt to his previous position out wide. He will ask him to stay high up the field, close to the defenders, rather than come deeper to get the ball and run with it, as he's done in the past. This will also force defenders to keep a constant eye on him and may ultimately modify the way opponents play Lazio.

Zarate's position is not going to make or break the Biancocelesti's season, of course, but it may be a significant move in the chess match that will determine the crucial top four places at the end of the season.

Reja's main worry may centre around the overall quality of the squad. Ask Lazio fans and their verdict, although not final (how can any fan's be?), would be damning: the Cesena game showed Lazio will have to use their first XI as much as they can in order to keep up their challenge, as most of the reserves will have to step up their game if they want to have a chance of claiming a starting position. Aston Villa won the First Division in 1981 by using just 14 players all season, but that's a feat that can hardly be repeated, and Lazio would probably lose ground in the Champions League chase if they had to delve deep into the squad because of injuries or loss of form in what has already been a momentous season for them.

In a city where Roma seem to enjoy the reputation of being simultaneously the people's team and the one it's good to be seen supporting, Lazio are constantly trying to remind outsiders of their own proud legacy and tradition. Unlike Roma, Lazio are not just a football club (their complete name, Societa Sportiva Lazio, makes no reference to football, just to its nature as a sports club) but the centre of a multi-sports organisation that fields thousands of athletes in nearly 40 sports, including American football.

All of the teams and individuals carrying the name of Lazio - which, it has to be mentioned, is also the name of the region surrounding Rome and bordering Tuscany - sport the eagle logo on their jerseys, and the football club's decision to have a trained eagle circle the Stadio Olimpico before each home game this year has been a hot - okay, warm may better describe it - topic for weeks in Italian football. At first, animal welfare activists raised predictable objections, which were soon answered by the club with the launch of a campaign to raise money for animal shelters and education about the environment, and it must be said the innovation seems to have caught on.

A Rome-based newspaper reported two weeks ago an apparent, albeit undocumented, increase in the number of kids asking their parents to take them to the stadium to "see the eagle", and the majestic flight of Olimpia, as the eagle has been named, must have struck a nerve on the other side of town.

In what will perhaps not be remembered as the finest moment in the history of the local rivalry, Olimpia was grounded for the derby following threats by Roma followers, some of whom were apparently ready to target her with one of those green laser beams (or worse). That Lazio lost their only home game not introduced by the aerial show will tickle the fancy of superstitious fans, but make no mistake: whether Lazio win the Scudetto or qualify for the Champions League will not depend on Olimpia but on how well Reja copes with injuries, loss of form and suspensions. Just like everyone else has to do, of course, regardless of whether an eagle, an ant or an elephant opens the show.

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