The biggest Rome derby in at least half a decade has been overshadowed by events preceding it. On Tuesday, Roma pulled off one of the great European comebacks: recovering from three goals down to eliminate Barcelona from the Champions League and reach the semi-finals. The shoe was on the other foot for Lazio two days later, as their 4-2 lead from the first leg became a 6-5 defeat to RB Salzburg in the Europa League.
Such results define entire seasons. Even if Roma lose to their semi-final opponents Liverpool, this would still be the furthest they have gone in a European Cup since the Reds beat them in the 1984 final. The almost 60,000 fans who attended on Tuesday will never forget watching their team reduce Lionel Messi to a helpless bystander.
Lazio’s supporters, conversely, saw the dream of only a second European trophy slip away. Perhaps that will bring Sunday’s game into even sharper focus. In another season, this might have been the most important fixture by far.
Roma and Lazio start this weekend joint-third in Serie A, level on 60 points with seven games remaining. Internazionale, who are at Atalanta on Saturday night, kick off one point behind them in fifth. With Juventus and Napoli in effect locked into the top spots, it is a case of three into two for a place in next season’s Champions League.
The financial implications are obvious. Roma have already earned upwards of €70m from this European run, a hugely significant sum for a club that posted losses of more than €40m after missing out last season. For Lazio, whose operating revenue is far smaller than that of their rivals, the impact would be even greater.
Sunday’s game, though, is about far more than bank balances. This has been a year of footballing revival in Italy’s capital, those European runs breeding fresh enthusiasm in the stands. Full houses such as the one that greeted Barcelona are still an uncommon sight at the Stadio Olimpico but average attendances at both Rome clubs’ games have risen by more than 4,000 from last year.
Such energy stems in part from the presence of two young and ambitious managers, each with a clear and contrasting vision of how the game should be played.
Roma’s Eusebio Di Francesco is a Zdenek Zeman disciple who views rigour as the key to victory, drilling the same movements over and over. At their best, his teams are compact, opportunistic and aggressive.
Simone Inzaghi is more of a pragmatist. At Lazio, he has identified individual players’ strengths and designed his team to exploit them. In Ciro Immobile he found a striker whose game was lacking in certain areas but who could time a run as well as anyone. So Inzaghi set the Biancocelesti up to sit deep and play on the counter, waiting for opponents to overcommit and leave space in behind.
The results have been wildly entertaining. Lazio are Serie A’s top scorers, with 75 goals in 31 games. Immobile leads the league with 27, but Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto each have nine. Inzaghi’s team have, however, also conceded 40 times in the league, more than Juventus and Napoli combined.
Di Francesco could never abide such sloppiness. Roma are more reliable and yet perhaps more predictable for it. Edin Dzeko destroyed Barcelona with his direct and powerful runs but when opponents do find a way to neutralise him, the Giallorossi sometimes struggle. The craft and unpredictability of Cengiz Under has been a boon, but he is only just back from a hamstring injury.
This will be the Turkish forward’s first game against Lazio, if he plays. Will he feel the occasion as keenly as his manager once did? Di Francesco, who spent four seasons at Roma as a player, recalls walking out beneath his team’s supporters in the Curva Sud before his first derby, and feeling his legs start to shake uncontrollably for the one and only time in his career.
There have been more weighty editions than this one, but not many. Most obvious is the 2013 Coppa Italia final, the only time Rome’s two leading clubs have met with a piece of major silverware on the line. Lazio won 1-0, with a goal from Senad Lulic. The fallout continued for months, with Lazio supporters holding a mock funeral procession for Roma through the city and flying planes trailing reminders of their triumph during the summer that followed.
Sunday’s game cannot deliver such a permanent verdict. It is conceivable that either team could lose and yet still pip the other to a top-four spot. But after a week of such contrasting highs and lows, it is a game that offers tantalising opportunities for glory or redemption. “Right now we are in pieces,” said Inzaghi in the wake of Thursday’s collapse. “But on Sunday we have another big chance.”Topics Serie A Sportblog Roma Lazio European club football features Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on Google+ Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger Reuse this content