On Sunday 31st August 2008 Lazio took to the field at the Stadio Sant Elia in Cagliari, five of the Aquile starting line up had arrived in the Summer to provide a much needed reinforcement to the side that finished a disappointing 12th the previous season. The most intriguing of the new faces was that of 21 year old Mauro Zarate.
Zarate €20million arrival from Qatari club Al-Sadd could be described as shady at best. The Argentine divided opinion some fans called him a “potential phenomenon” while others were foretelling of a colossal flop. Lazio president, Claudio Lotito, refused to sit on the fence and piled pressure on his new acquisition by boldly proclaiming “Zarate is better than Messi”
“He instantly showed what he has, in a debut which finished 4-1 to Lazio at the Sant’Elia – blazing dribbling, a powerful shot, ice cold. That, ice cold, temperament which allowed him to score the equalising penalty. The real feat came later, lobbing with his left – the boy is ambidextrous – a desperately onrushing Marchetti, with the slimmest margins of success.”
Giulio Cardone, La Repubblica
On his debut, Zarate’s sprightly young running put in a wonderful performance, but, questions were asked of him from the beginning though as Cardone goes on “Has a star been born? It’s too soon to say, he is far too in love with the ball”. Zarate went on to score 13 goals and provide 8 assists in 36 games during his first season, and at Christmas he was named one of the wonders of the Serie A season so far by Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Sadly for Lazio fans, Maurito has failed to live up to the early promise. The goals dried up, having scored just 9 goals since the end of his first season Zarate is becoming increasingly unsettled in the Lazio side. Perhaps he is struggling to bear the hefty cross that comes with a huge price tag, or maybe he’s just an unhappy soul.Since arriving in February 2010, Edy Reja has, at times, been critical of Zarate’s use of the ball when in possession. Reja said in January “He [Zarate] is always convinced he can get past his man, but football is a game played by 11, not on your own”. Echoing the thoughts of Giulio Cardone on his debut, sadly, little has changed.
Sergio Zarate, Mauro’s brother, represents the striker as his agent, has been incredibly outspoken under both Davide Ballardini and Edy Reja’s reign at the club. Throughout the best part of last season Sergio levelled accusations at Reja and the club that they were barely utilising his brother.
This seemed somewhat justified after Reja’s post match comments about Zarate in January this year – “I’ve been here for a year now, as soon as I saw him play, I saw how he trained and I kept him to one side, depending on Rocchi and Floccari and we achieved safety” -this was while chiding the young Argentine’s use of the ball, again.
When Zarate did play, Sergio had problems with the style in which Zarate was asked to play. Against Palermo, following defeat in the derby, Zarate was asked to track back on the right hand flank in order to assist Lionel Scaloni. Enter Sergio “They’re destroying my brother … he’s not a full back, on Sunday, I hope to see him attacking”
Whether or not these are the true feelings of the player are unknown, Mauro speaks little and rarely to the press. Reja isn’t the only boss that Sergio has initiated hostile talks with in the media though, and the tantrums we have occasionally seen when Zarate is substituted in the past 18 months would suggest that Sergio is sounding out the player’s true feelings.
Problems arose again last Saturday when Zarate arrived an hour late to training on Saturday, claiming he had misread the meeting time. Reja showed no quarter, and put him on the bench as a punishment. Except that the lesson he was trying to teach Zarate by excluding him from the game didn’t quite go to plan. Just thirteen minutes in Giuseppe Sculli was injured and Reja turned to the bench, with what must have been disgruntlement, and called Zarate into the fray.
What followed, was a determined performance from a young man who looked like he was playing for the team. He provided two assists, in positions where he may have ordinarily chosen to shoot himself, and topped his performance off with a goal direct from a 25 yard free kick into the bottom left corner of Andujar’s goal. After the game Reja joked “I liked the way he came into the game [attitude off the bench]. Perhaps I’ll start him from the bench in Milan against Inter as well.”
The problem for Lazio now is that these decisive performances have been few and far between, and his fate at the club appears to remain constantly in the balance despite his current contract running until 2014. His age favours him, still relatively young at 24 years of age, and he can’t be written off just yet. His potential transfer fee will either see Lazio making a massive loss, or any potential suitors warned off.
When, sporting director, Igli Tare sits down to discuss his future this summer he will have to decide, together with Reja, whether to stick or twist. We are likely to see them hold on for just a little while longer, but it is the man management of this mercurial enigma which could be one of the keys which opens new doors for Lazio.