Replacing Edy Reja as Lazio coach looked a tough job for whoever was given the assignment, but Vladimir Petkovic is flourishing in the Italian capital. The 49-year-old, who bossed Swiss Super League side Sion last season, has begun life at Lazio with a bang, leading the club impressively in Serie A. Also on the agenda for Petkovic is the Europa League, where the Rome giants are in a group with Tottenham Hotspur, Panathinaikos and NK Maribor.
Inside Futbol went to speak to the Lazio coach about his approach to facing Tottenham, life so far in charge of one of Italy’s biggest clubs and his expectations for the season ahead.
Inside Futbol (IF): For Lazio, the game against Tottenham Hotspur is a tough introduction to the group stage of the Europa League, wouldn’t you say?
Vladimir Petkovic (VP): I think Lazio have enough quality to beat Tottenham. This doesn’t mean we are better than them, but we can play at their level. Tottenham are a very solid team and the win against Reading has brought back their confidence. After a difficult start, it seems that Andre Villas-Boas has found the magic formula and his players are now ready to follow him.
IF: Which Spurs player do you fear the most?
VP: Spurs have a lot of dangerous weapons: [Aaron] Lennon, [Gareth] Bale, [Scott] Parker, [Emmanuel] Adebayor, [Jermain] Defoe, [Moussa] Dembele. We should not forget that they would have taken a spot in the Champions League if Chelsea had not won the trophy.
IF: Does a trip to White Hart Lane bring back any memories for you?
VP: The first time I went there was for the 2010/11 Champions League playoff. I was coaching Young Boys and we were beaten heavily. However, I am not scared of playing at White Hart Lane. Things are completely different now. Despite the defeat Young Boys were a good team – we beat Tottenham in Switzerland during the first leg and played really well. Lazio are at least two steps above them. We know we will have to work hard, but this is European football. You must learn to work hard, but at the same time you should be aware that it is possible to win at every football ground in the world. Without this kind of mentality, you won’t go far.
IF: What is Lazio’s approach to the game going to be?
VP: We must be both mentally and physically strong. We must cope with tough tackles, which are the trademarks of English football. You can play smart and fast football, but you can’t win at White Hart Lane if you are not physically prepared to win the battles on the pitch.
IF: Lazio have had an outstanding start to the new Serie A campaign: three games, three wins. The last time this happened was in 1974…
VP: Things change so fast in the world of football that I won’t waste my time looking at these statistics. I felt a lot of negativity surrounding myself the first time I came to Italy, but now things are different. I am happy that I am not "Petkovic-who?" anymore. This is just the beginning, but we are on the right track.
IF: Expectations were dampened after Lazio’s unimpressive pre-season – what changed?
VP: I wasn’t particularly worried about the results in the friendlies we played. Unlike most of my Italian colleagues, for me the friendlies were an opportunity to see all the team’s players in action, rather than to look for the best eleven men. I chose to try out all the possible combinations because my priority was to get a picture, as comprehensive as possible, about the players available.
IF: Could Lazio aim for a Champions League spot this season?
VP: It’s not possible to tell right now. The season has just begun and I prefer to live week by week. I wasn’t upset after the pre-season games and I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. Lazio did a very good job during the last two seasons, so I had no doubts about the quality of my team. In Rome the pressure is incredibly high because it is a city that talks about football 24 hours a day. An example? There are about 20 radios exclusively dedicated to Lazio. Luckily we have been able to leave all the publicity outside Formello [Lazio's training camp. ed] and prepare whilst keeping our minds fresh.
IF: You worked in Switzerland for many years and the Alpine country has displayed some very good performances at youth level recently. What is your opinion on this?
VP: Switzerland is a great country for developing players. Little pressure, no win-at-all-costs mentality, more patience in developing youngsters. I am not surprised that players like [Gokhan] Inler, [Xherdan] Shaqiri and [Blerim] Dzemaili are doing well in top competitions such as Serie A and the German Bundesliga. They all come from a good football laboratory.