Lazio picked a rather curious venue to celebrate the club's 113th birthday on Wednesday. The American Circus was in town, so they chose to blow out the candles under a big top and among some scary-looking clowns. As a location, it was a touch ironic really because unlike their surroundings, there's been little funny business at Lazio this season, at least on the pitch. Quite the contrary in fact, they've been deadly serious.
Before last weekend's match against Cagliari many thought Vladimir Petkovic must have been joking when he told reporters: "We have to believe in the possibility of catching [Juventus]." A few journalists creased up.
And yet who's laughing now?
Lazio came from behind to beat Cagliari 2-1 at the Olimpico on Saturday evening, admittedly in fortunate circumstances. The visitors were reduced to nine men following the award of a soft penalty that Antonio Candreva converted to win a game that, it must be remembered, was blighted by the racist chanting Victor Ibarbo was subjected to in the first half.
Juventus' shock 2-1 defeat the following day to a Sampdoria side that had gone 1-0 down and played an hour with 10 men after Gaetano Berardi's red card meant the gap at the top of the table was closed from eight points to five.
Make no mistake, that is still a significant lead. Some would say it's unassailable considering Juventus went unbeaten throughout the entirety of last season and are better for it, as demonstrated by their record start to the season. Others would point to how the champions have now lost three of their last nine games in Serie A and, while still favourites to retain their title, may have some cause for concern.
It's perhaps understandable considering Lazio are all alone in second place following Napoli's two-point penalty and the losses suffered by both Inter and Fiorentina at the weekend, that there's a wish, certainly on the media's behalf, to present them as the latest "anti-Juve."
Petkovic, a master of communication, not least because he speaks eight languages, won yet more plaudits during this, his first season in Italy with the following response. "We aren't anti-anyone. We are pro-Lazio."
It was a great sentiment. No us against them. No needless confrontation. Just focusing on what his team are doing. And Lazio are doing well. Really well.
After making their best start to a season since they won their first Scudetto under Tommaso Maestrelli in 1974-75, Lazio have also matched the number of points they achieved at this stage of the 1999-2000 campaign when, quite auspiciously, they came back to overtake Juventus - closing a nine-point gap in the final eight games of the season - to win the second league championship in their history under Sven-Goran Eriksson.
That was a team comprising Alessandro Nesta, Juan Sebastian Veron, Pavel Nedved, Roberto Mancini and Marcelo Salas. It had narrowly missed out on the title the previous season and was thus expected to challenge for the next.
Today's Lazio, even after regularly featuring in the top five over the last two years and contending for a Champions League place, certainly weren't anticipated to do the same and perhaps still aren't, because, to be frank, it's a much more modest squad. No transfer records were broken assembling it. Hernanes and the out-in-the-cold Mauro Zarate aside, for the most part, it was built on a shoestring.
But while Lazio may not have as good a team [or as many outstanding individuals] as the `99-00 vintage, the current crop, as the numbers suggest, don't necessarily pale in comparison even if, it must be said, Serie A isn't as strong in terms of competitiveness as it was back then. But let's live in the here and now.
Lazio are unbeaten in eight league matches. It's the longest streak in Serie A and owes a lot to their home record, which is also the best in the division. A run of six wins from their last eight games mean they're also Italy's form team. It's clear that they aren't afraid of anyone. Encounters with the other teams that make up the current top seven in Serie A have yielded 10 points. Only Inter have done better in that regard, for Lazio have beaten both Milan clubs, triumphed over Roma in the derby and drawn away to Juventus so far this season.
No matter where they go and who they face, Lazio fancy themselves to get a result. And why not? They're a tough team to play against; for one moment, Lazio will be playing one system and the next they'll be playing another.
After blowing Catania away 3-0 on Tuesday to book a place in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, Petkovic smiled at how the reporters in the press room didn't know what formation Lazio had used. "I like it when at the end of the game you don't understand how we played," he beamed. "We started with three-at-the-back then went to 4-4-1-1 and then went back to three-at-the-back."
It's just as much as a headache for opposition managers and players. They get unsettled and if they fall behind they're practically done for. Why? Because Lazio haven't dropped a single point from a winning position this season. When they go ahead, they stay ahead. Boasting the third best defence in Serie A, it ensures that they nearly always keep things close, so although their attack ranks only just above midtable in terms of goals scored, one chance is often enough, especially when Lazio have a centre-forward like Miroslav Klose, who, at 32.3%, has the best conversion rate in Serie A (of players with more than 5 goals).
They're not lacking in other ways to beat you, either.
If teams sit back and Klose gets marked out of the game, then Lazio will punish them from distance. Hernanes has scored four goals from outside the box this season and Candreva a further three, a figure which when taken together is the joint-most by a team in the division. Take into account the threat Lazio also pose from set-pieces [they've scored 10] and it's not difficult to see why they're up there in second place at this stage of the season for the first time in a decade.
The question is: can they sustain their current form and even push on?
This time last year, Lazio were also positioned well, although more with a view to qualifying for the Champions League than maybe contending for the title. And yet the wheels fell off. Strikers Djibril Cisse and Giuseppe Sculli were allowed to leave and not replaced, which meant in the event of Klose getting injured, which he did, they were short of goals.
Injuries to other key players stretched the squad to the extreme and not getting the reinforcements he so desired, Edy Reja offered his resignation, saw it rejected, stayed on and enthusiasm began to fade. Even though Lazio finished fourth, an improvement in terms of position from the year before, regrettably, for the second consecutive season they were once again pipped to qualification for the Champions League preliminaries by Udinese.
This time, however, things do seem to be different. Petkovic, unlike Reja, who despite saving Lazio from relegation and leading them back into Europe, could never count on the favour of the Curva Nord, does have the full support of the fans.
President Claudio Lotito, while cautiously insisting that Lazio must "always tread carefully" in the transfer market, does also seem to have learnt the lesson of last year, when he arguably compromised his club's objectives by making blunders in the January window, negotiating throughout it with CSKA Moscow for Keisuke Honda only for the deal to collapse late on, and Candreva, an outed Roma fan and therefore an unpopular signing, who, it must be said, has since turned out to be a real success, being the only reinforcement.
Now Lotito is prepared to buy "if there are the conditions to increase the potential of our squad." It remains to be seen whether he does or not amid reports of interest in Casemiro, the 20-year-old São Paulo midfielder.
The prospect of automatic qualification for next year's Champions League and the riches therein, surely make a persuasive case for some kind of investment now to enhance their chances of securing it.
That of course is for Lotito to decide. But on the basis of the first half of the season, Petkovic deserves to be backed. Because if the Eagles dare, they may go far.