Tuesday May 30, 2017  
     
 
  05/03/2015: Coppa Italia Report: Lazio 1-1 Napoli
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Yesterday evening’s Coppa Italia semi-final between Lazio and Napoli was the fascinating encounter it was built up to be. Before the game, much was made of the notion that the two sides are battling on two fronts, both the league and the cup, and a comparison was drawn between Miroslav Klose, the World Cup winner, and Gonzalo Higuain, the bridesmaid. They were talking points then, and they are certainly talking points now.

For Miroslav Klose got the better of his Argentine rival in the first half. The German forward had latched onto a cross with his head and hit the post within ten minutes. He had a similar opportunity shortly afterwards which ended up in the hands of Mariano Andujar. He had opened the deadlock just after the half hour mark, coolly slotting the ball pass Andujar having picked up on the most beautifully-weighted of Felipe Anderson passes, and he was primed to double our lead before the whistle when he received the ball unmarked in the penalty area, but he couldn’t apply the finish.

Gonzalo Higuain, on the other hand, gave us one heart-in-mouth moment when he sneaked in front of a snoozing de Vrij to flick the ball into the hands of Etrit Berisha. Lazio had reduced Napoli to that.

There is no doubt we deserved our half-time lead, but we owed it to a 36 year-old veteran striker and this is the real talking point in my opinion. Ghoulam and Mesto were unable to prevent Antonio Candreva, Felipe Anderson and others from supplying Klose, and Miro was able to get in between Albiol and Britos and cause problems. This happened time-and-time again in the first half.

It was, however, only one area of the pitch where Lazio were getting the upper-hand and although Klose was able to exploit Napoli, he did not have enough about him to punish them. He is in good shape, and his movement and positioning is as impressive as ever, but he has the feet of a 36 year-old and it would give a Napoli side on the ropes enough to start punching back.

Rafa Benitez appeared to have a simple gameplan – look to counter and expose Basta through Mertens. It was not working, because the midfield trio were able to cover the space left by an advancing Basta, but it was evident that they were not able to cover Basta and the entire midfield area. Higuain had been reduced to one moment in the first half, but the move oozed quality and Lazio looked vulnerable.

Napoli are the benchmark for this Lazio side. They have regularly qualified for the Champions League although this season, they lost out in qualifying. If Lazio merit a spot in the Champions League, then they need to be able to dispose of Napoli at home. We failed in the league, and we failed last night.

Many will look to blame individuals, but it is about the team. This team cannot rely on its technical ability to qualify for Europe’s premier competition because we do not have enough of it. Twice now this season, we’ve outplayed Napoli in the sense that we’ve dominated the game and twice now, they’ve come away with a favourable result.

All they needed last night was to get Mertens on the ball in the centre of the pitch. Stefan de Vrij had moved out to deal with him, then decided to stand off him and give him all the space in the world to execute the perfect pass to Higuain which split Mauricio and Radu wide open. Lucas Biglia was in a great position to intercept Mertens with a tackle and initiate a counter-attack. Instead, he decided to drop deep to mark Manolo Gabbiadini, but had lost the eventual goalscorer within a second of making that decision. Many will argue that Napoli were hugely fortuitous as Higuain’s scuffed finish fell kindly for Gabbiadini, but I’m not convinced the 40 million euro striker chose to shoot from a ridiculous angle rather than instinctively put the ball into an area he knew Gabbiadini would be venturing into.

Put simply, Napoli are a better football team than Lazio. I am not saying we cannot turn this cup tie around or finish ahead of the Neapolitans in the league; what I am trying to say is that there is a reason why this Napoli side are above us in the league currently despite having to tour around Europe every couple of weeks.

They dismantled us in the midfield area. Juventus did it when they hammered us at home. Roma did it in the second half of the derby after we played them off the pitch in the opening 45. Napoli, Genoa and Udinese were all able to do it in the league and at the Stadio Olimpico with the implementation of the right tactics, and lesser sides such as Cesena and Empoli were able to do it in front of their home fans with persistence. In the middle of the park, where you need your most technically-gifted players to be, Lazio are found wanting and it does not help our cause to have our lone striker, be it Filip Djordjevic or Miroslav Klose, not take their opportunities.

Lazio need to address this, but with the greatest of respect to Lucas Biglia, Marco Parolo and others of their ilk, we will never move forward if we continue to sign above average midfielders with no scope for improvement. We will never move forward if we continue to look to the free transfer market for strikers. Miroslav Klose has been a wonderful servant, and Filip Djordjevic is a valuable asset, but again, no scope for improvement.

Igli Tare announced after the game that Lazio have signed a new player for the summer. Unless it is a young midfielder with great technical ability or a striker with a good 8-10 years ahead of him, Stefano Pioli has got his work cut out to take this team to the next level. Sadly, I learned last night that we are reliant on the failings of others to achieve that aim in the immediate future. Forza Lazio!

Author: Cathal Mullan
 
 
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