At the start of the season, few supporters would have staked even pocket change on Lazio vying for Serie A glory. With an unknown newcomer at the helm, a lack of major transfer activity and a seemingly ageing Miroslav Klose up front, the capital side appeared destined for an underwhelming campaign. Six months later, however, and le Aquile (the Eagles) are soaring high in second place, sitting five points behind Juventus with the same tally as Napoli, while Inter Milan, AC Milan and, above all, arch-rivals Roma lie in their wake.
"It's true that we've won several of our matches by narrow margins, but what's important is to win them," coach Vladimir Petkovic – the only foreign tactician in Italy's top flight – told FIFA.com. "Juventus are still favourites and they're a strong team, but they're not unbeatable. The other sides have to believe in their chances and Lazio are one of those sides. We can play a leading role in this championship."
Not too long ago, such a bold statement would surely have been met with ridicule, but that would have been to underestimate the Sarajevo-born Bosnian, who also holds Croatian and Swiss passports and speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian, English, German, French and Italian. An attacking midfielder during his modest playing career, Petkovic has followed an upward trajectory since turning his attentions to coaching, with Lazio his most prestigious assignment yet.
He has come a very long way, in fact, having started out at Swiss side Bellinzona, where he held evening training sessions as his days were spent working for Caritas, the international confederation of Catholic charity organisations. "That was a rewarding experience for me in intellectual terms and it taught me to lead a group of individuals," he said.
All the same, his appointment last summer was met with considerable scepticism across the capital. "I had a few difficulties at the start because, outside the club, I was treated as if I were a coach coming here from the third world," recalled the former Sion and Young Boys boss, who also had a spell with Turkish outfit Samsunspor. "The fans couldn't understand how someone like me could get to be in charge of a club like Lazio."
"I chose him because he has certain mental and professional qualities and an excellent psychological approach to individuals," said Biancocelesti President Claudio Lotito, explaining the reasoning behind the appointment. "He manages a dressing room not only with a reliance on the technical side of things, but also with a mental and psychological approach."
Once given the position, Petkovic set out to really get to grips with his new side. "First of all, I made efforts to study and get to know every player individually, and to learn every detail of his career and life," he explained. "At the start, people were sceptical, but confidence began to grow as the results came, especially after our win in the derby and the victories against Inter and Milan. That's when we started to have more credibility."
Despite Lazio's lofty position and their challenge for honours, Petkovic is far from tempted to shake things up by bringing in reinforcements for the remainder of the season. "We've managed to establish a balance in the dressing room on both the playing side and the mental side," he said. "We have to maintain that balance, and it could be upset by trying to integrate new players."
Humility and combativeness
The hallmarks of Petkovic's reign so far have been a superb ability to adapt his team's strategy to their opponents and also to switch things around depending on the scoreline. He typically opts for a very attacking 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 formation at kick-off, but is also known to plump for 4-5-1, which can then evolve into the 4-3-2-1 approach favoured by his predecessor, Edy Reja. As for personnel, only Klose and midfielder Hernanes – who struggles to find a place in the Brazil squad – can claim to be definite starters, though that is hardly surprising given the duo have rattled in 70 per cent of the club's goals this term.
"We have a good squad of players and a great coaching staff, but we have to take every game as it comes and not plan too far ahead," commented Klose, who has been his usual predatory self in recent months. Like the German international, Lazio have been a model of humility and combativeness since the campaign began, and they have no doubt taken their lead from a coach bent on keeping his players focused.
The fans couldn't understand how someone like me could get to be in charge of a club like Lazio.
"We need to retain our limitless hunger without having a fear of victory," stated Petkovic, whose message hit home once again on Tuesday as a line-up missing Klose travelled to Juve for the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-finals and earned a valuable 1-1 draw.
That result could prove to have a major influence on the second half of the season, and it served as further proof – if proof were still needed – that Petkovic has hauled Lazio right back to the forefront of the Italian game.