Dec 5 (Reuters) - Plagued by injuries, prone to defensive blunders and unsettled by speculation over the future of their coach, Lazio have stumbled into a crisis while watching their arch-rivals AS Roma sail off into the distance.
Last season, which ended with a triumphant victory over Roma in the first-ever Coppa Italia final meeting between the pair, now seems a distant memory as they slither down the table following a run of five games without a win.
A 4-2 home defeat by Napoli on Monday, the third time this season they have leaked four goals in a game, exposed the glaring weaknesses in the Lazio rearguard.
The players were jeered when they went to acknowledge the ultras in the Curva Nord at the end of the match and had to endure cries for more guts and determination.
"The players didn't deserve the protests because we saw a Lazio team that wanted to win," said coach Vladimir Petkovic after Monday's defeat, where he admitted that all the Napoli goals came from mistakes.
"I don't think the relationship with the fans is broken," he added. "We are all sorry that we have so few points. I don't think the team deserved the protests because... but there has to be engagement with the fans, whether it's positive or negative."
Petkovic's future is already in doubt and the team appears to have been unsettled by speculation that the Bosnian will leave at the end of the season to take charge of the Swiss national side.
It is a far cry from last season when Petkovic, who had done most of his coaching in Switzerland before being launched into the more cutthroat world of Serie A, surprised observers by keeping Lazio near the top of the table for most of the season.
In attack, Germany forward Miroslav Klose has been dogged by a series of niggling injuries and Lazio have struggled to find an adequate replacement.
Brayan Perea, a 20-year-old Colombian, has shown some promise as has 18-year-old Barcelona youth product Keita Balde, who scored a stunning goal against Napoli, but both remain promises for the future rather than reliable replacements.
Brazilian playmaker Hernanes has struggled to find his form, something that is also threatening to undermine his chances of making his country's World Cup team.
Club directors have not escaped the criticism, either, and the ultras boycotted the start of their team's Serie A match against Chievo in September in protest at the club's allegedly poor performance in the transfer market.
Lazio are now no better off than crisis-hit AC Milan, with the teams equal ninth on 17 points from 14 games, and face a difficult visit to Torino on Sunday (1400) where they hope to glean their first domestic away win of the season.
Leaders Juventus will begin at least a month without playmaker Andrea Pirlo when they visit Bologna on Friday night (1945) to kickoff the weekend.
The 34-year-old suffered a grade two strain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the win over Udinese. Although, with Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal, Juventus still have arguably the strongest midfield in the league.
Second-placed AS Roma, still struggling in the absence of injured talisman Francesco Totti, host Fiorentina, joint fourth, in the weekend's top fixture on Sunday (1130).
Roma remain unbeaten on 34 points, three behind Juventus, but, having started with a spectacular run of 10 games in a row, have drawn their last four, a run which has coincided with Totti's absence.
"Totti is something special for Roma," midfielder Miralem Pjanic said. "When he's not here, the team plays differently.
"I'm not saying we lose confidence without him, but we are accustomed to always having him on the field. When he's not there, we are missing a reference point. All the play goes through him, so Roma have to play differently without Totti." (Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne; Editing by John O'Brien)