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Lazio hit the heights while Roma wait in the wings

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Phil Minshull | 18:17 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

It's taken a long time but, at 65, the Lazio coach Edoardo Reja - almost universally known as Edy - has finally reached the summit of Italian football.

During his varied coaching career of almost 30 years, which has seen him take charge at 21 different clubs, he's tasted modest success in the lower divisions but few would seriously have expected him to have guided a team to the top of Serie A, especially the perennial under-achievers of Italian football.

Brescia and Vicenza both won Serie B under his guidance while he took Napoli from Serie C to Europe during a five-year spell at Diego Maradona's former club.

However, although many Italian football fans still have the sensation that their eyes are deceiving them, the statistics are not lying.

Lazio are four points clear at the top of Serie A after their 1-0 win at Palermo last Sunday, their fourth away win in a row, while Milan were overtaken by Rafa Benitez's Inter for second place after the former went down 2-1 at home to fellow Italian giants Juventus.

Remarkably, Reja was only expected to be a stop-gap solution at Lazio after taking over in February, one of the few feasible options available at that time of the year, but Lazio president Claudio Lotito decided to keep faith with the man who only managed to guarantee their survival late in the season and who could have started collecting his state pension and other associated benefits last month.

So just what has Reja done to convert last season's strugglers into contenders for the Scudetto, which Lazio have only won twice before, in 1974 and 2000?

Mainly, it's the fact that his midfield has stepped up a gear.

Christian Ledesma has resolved the contract problems which were clearly a huge distraction last year, with Inter and Juventus apparently among those that were interested in the Argentine, and pledged his immediate future to Lazio just before the start of the season.

With Ledesma happy and back to the form he showed consistently in the three seasons after his arrival in 2006, Lazio look a completely different side to the one of the last campaign.

Lazio coach Edoardo Reja

Reja was only expected to be a stop-gap solution at Lazio. Photo: Reuters

Fellow midfielder Stefano Mauri has also rediscovered his sharpness and skills of several seasons ago and earned a full deserved recall to the Italian international side.

Ledesma and Mauri have also been considerably helped by the arrival of their Brazilian counterpart Hernanes.

The controversial Lotito - noted among the Italian media and even the club's own fans for overstating Lazio's claims to greatness - spent most of the £15m they received from Manchester City for Aleksandar Kolarov in signing Hernanes from Sao Paulo.

It's fair to say that more than a few people were wondering about the wisdom of such an acquisition, a feeling initially compounded during the pre-season by the fact that Reja was playing him much further up the field than expected, but it has proved to an inspired move.

"Our campaign is surprising everyone. We ourselves did not expect that we'd be at the top at this stage of the championship," Hernanes told Italian media earlier this week.

"Upon arriving I had many difficulties, since I had to change the way I played. I've always been a defensive midfielder, but now I'm happy with my role. In Italy, I am becoming a complete player,"

The men up front, Mauro Zarate Sergio Floccari and Tommaso Rocchi, have not been as prolific as I am sure Reja would ideally like them to be but for the moment the midfield - with Hernanes playing a role similar to his compatriot Kaka and working just behind whoever are the two front men - has been covering their shortfall.

It also can't be denied that another factor could be the fact that there is no European football for Lazio to think about after last year's disappointing campaign.

Inter, Milan, Juve and even Lazio's local rivals Roma, who they face in the local derby on Sunday, all have their eyes on success in Europe, whether it's in the Champions League or Europa League.

By contrast, Reja can sit back, relax, and plot the downfall of Roma while his players recover from their week-in, week-out, exertions in Serie A.

The Lazio fans, and possibly the players, may hate the fact that their team are absent from Europe but perversely it has probably done them plenty of favours on the domestic front, as the consensus of opinion is that their squad doesn't have the strength in depth of the other teams challenging immediately behind them.

If Lazio can beat Roma at home on Sunday, a few more people are likely to take their championships ambitions a bit more seriously.

Adding to Reja's likely sense of optimism that things are going his way is that Roma are missing their captain Francisco Totti, who was sent off against Lecce last weekend for slapping an opponent.

"For me, it's better if Totti doesn't play," said Reja, knowing full well the influence that Totti can have on proceedings as Roma's all-time top goalscorer and on-field leader.

Despite good evidence that time is starting to take its toll on the 34-year-old Totti, who has still not scored a goal in Serie A this season, Roma without him are still a less threatening force.

"We want to win the derby because our fans want to and they deserve it too," said Zarate on Monday. "Scudetto? We won't talk about this because we are living by the day."

The big question, perhaps the only question, is whether Lazio's day-by-day approach will be sufficient for them to still be at the top by the third weekend in May

Many people have their doubts about Lazio's staying power but, with no side yet looking like they are going to dominate Serie A this year, Lazio might just have as good a chance as they have done for a very, very, long time.

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