With Lazio flying in Serie A it seemed like a good time to look back at the days when the capital club were one of the major players in the division.
That position was down to the millions of Sergio Cragnotti who bankrolled the assembly of brilliant squad under the guidance of Sven Goran Eriksson. The Swede arrived in 1997 after years of near misses and in his second season in charge Lazio would have the greatest anti-climax of their history, as they let a seven-point lead slip and Milan clinched the title by defeating Perugia on the final day.
The previous season had seen the capital club win the Coppa Italia but they disappointingly lost out on a chance of their first ever European silverware in the Uefa Cup final. A Ronaldo-inspired Inter proved too much for even this vaunted Lazio defence. They would though get their hands on a European trophy the following year beating Mallorca in the final of the last Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999. Greater success was to come though for a side that Eriksson built around a rock-solid defence marshalled by club captain Alessandro Nesta. Alongside him were hardened pros like Fernando Couto and Giesuppe Favalli while Sinisa Mihajlovic was no shrinking violet and could also strike a sweet free-kick. They were shielded by the likes of Matias Almeyda and later Diego Simeone. This was not a side that tended to give up easy goals.
Ahead of that solid foundation Juan Sebastian Veron ran the show demonstrating the kind of ability that eventually led to his ill-fated big-money move to Manchester. In fact, Lazio’s victory over Alex Ferguson’s treble winners in the Super Cup was likely a key factor in the Argentine’s move.
Pavel Nedved floated inside from the flank prompting and probing before feeding a strikeforce including a selection of Christian Vieri, Marcelo Salas, Alen Boksic, Claudio Lopez and Hernan Crespo over the years. Lazio broke the world transfer record twice in three years to bring first Vieri and later Crespo to the club.
In 2000, Eriksson and his players finally delivered the title they had threatened, this time snatching victory at the death instead of defeat. They pipped Juventus to the league crown by a point. The Bianconeri had a nine-point lead at one stage but Lazio stormed back at them in the closing months winning the Rome derby and at the Stadio delle Alpi in consecutive weeks. The title went to the final day with Perugia this time doing the capital club a favour beating Juventus 1-0 to leave Lazio top of the heap.
Eriksson’s side went on to lift the Coppa Italia also beating Inter over two legs in the final, Simeone scoring the decisive goal, making them only the fourth side to complete such a double. Throw in the Super Cup victory and it was a truly remarkable season for the club which could have been even better were it not for a horrendous start in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final with Valencia, where they went two down inside four minutes. They went on to lose 5-2, a deficit they could not overturn in the second leg. It was an uncharacteristic collapse and perhaps the absence of the unflappable Nesta unsettled them and ultimately cost them their best chance at Europe’s top prize.
Cragnotti once again threw his weight around that summer bringing Crespo and Claudio Lopez, a key member of the Valencia side who denied them, to the club. However, midway through the season Eriksson resigned to take the England job and experience the joys of the British tabloids and from then on the wheels started to come off for Cragnotti and Lazio as his Cirio business ran into trouble and Veron, Nedved and Salas left before the 2001/2 season.
Gaizka Mendieta was brought in for £29 million but bombed spectacularly and Lazio by this stage were clearly on the decline and even Nesta left at the end of that season.
A just-retired Roberto Mancini brought the now bank-owned club to the Uefa Cup semi-final in 2003, where they went out to eventual champions Porto who were on their way to bigger things under the guidance of little-known manager Jose Mourinho, and they won another Coppa Italia in 2004 but the slide was now inexorable. By 2005 the make-up of the squad was entirely different and avoiding relegation was the goal.
The following year that was a real possibility as the club was involved in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal and while the return of Paolo Di Canio helped their performances, his fascist salute celebrations did nothing to help the image of a club which has long been dealing with right-wing elements. However, the club survived and under Delio Rossi they once again became competitive but it is hard to imagine a scenario where they once again become one of the biggest clubs in Europe.