By Paddy Agnew
Reaching the third round of the UEFA Cup and lying in third position in Serie A would be a big enough achievement for any coach, but for S.S. Lazio's Roberto Mancini it is a particularly impressive one.
With Lazio's parent company, Cirio, experiencing deep financial problems, many players have not had their wages paid since June this year and the club has been put up for sale. Other coaches would have wilted, but as he prepares for a UEFA Cup game against SK Sturm Graz on Thursday, Mancini is thriving in adversity.
'Call it pride'
"Of course, my players have their worries about this situation - they are only normal," he told uefa.com. "But the fact that everyone was saying that we would struggle before the beginning of the season sparked off something inside a number of them, call it pride if you like. When the going gets tough, they are still able to play and play well."
Strength in adversity
Certainly, bad times have brought out the best in Mancini's side and, despite losing Alessandro Nesta and Hernán Crespo in major transfer moves in the summer, Lazio have emerged as a force. Dejan Stankovic, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Stefano Fiore, César Rodrigues and Claudio López have all flourished under Mancini's guidance.
Class will tell
"They're playing well because they are well in themselves, they don't have worries and they are good players," explained Mancini. "They can have their periods of poor form but being good players that moment will pass. I know them not just as players but also off the pitch. I know what they're capable of."
The familiarity Mancini has with his squad - he played alongside them for many years - has been a key factor in his success at Lazio. "For me it's certainly an advantage," he said. "There was plenty of mutual respect and friendship when we were players together and that has continued. I think a player needs to feel good about himself, needs to feel that the coach is on his side and wishes him well, in order to be at his best."
Mancini will be hoping that his side are at their best against Sturm, but he admitted that the Austrian club are something of an unknown quantity for Lazio. "I don't know them very well but they're clearly a good team," said Mancini. "Sturm Graz do not have a lot of famous names in their ranks but that applies also to Wisla Kraków and they eliminated Parma [AC] in the last round."
With Italian clubs riding high in the UEFA Champions League, Lazio's continued success is further evidence of what many have described as an Italian renaissance in European football. Mancini, however, is unimpressed with such assessments.
"I don't think Italian football is on the 'way back' because it has always been at the top," he said. "Sure, you get years when you win less but you also get years like the late 1980s and the 1990s when Italian clubs dominated. I know results have been bad in recent years but Italian football remains very competitive."
After a great career as a striker which saw him win the Italian title with Lazio and UC Sampdoria, as well as embarking on numerous European adventures, you would have thought that Mancini would be pining for his playing days. Of course, you would only be half right. "I miss being a player but if you have the good luck to be a coach then you don't suffer quite so much," he said.
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