Questions, answers: Derby della Capitale
Zdenek Zeman, the great Bohemian of Italian football and former coach of Roma and Lazio, told Il Corriere dello Sport on Thursday: "The derby has never been a beautiful game played according to the potential of the two teams. In a derby it’s better to look at what’s going on in the stands rather than on the pitch: the real spectacle is there."
He has a point. The banners and choreography in each of the Curve are something to behold. The abiding memory of last year’s fixtures was Roma fans chanting: "Where is the pigeon?" in reference to Lazio’s mascot and pre-match warm up act, the American Eagle, Olimpia. She had been grounded for fear that her safety could not be ensured.
There are exceptions to Zeman’s rule. Roma’s 5-1 win in 2002 springs to mind, crowned as it was by Francesco Totti, the King of Rome himself, with his trademark spoon-like lob, the cucchiaio. Then there was Lazio’s 3-0 victory in December 2006, an early Christmas present opened with Cristian Ledesma’s left-footed strike from outside the box.
Edy Reja's problems with Roma extend beyond his tenure with Lazio. (Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)
Sunday’s should be a cracker, so let’s ignore Lazio coach Edy Reja’s request to "leave the chatter be" and answer the questions everyone’s been asking.
Can Reja lift the curse?
"He is our good luck charm," Totti joked on Thursday. The Roma captain was referring of course to Reja. Lazio have lost five consecutive derby matches, four of which have come under his tenure, and, as if to compound the misery, he has never once inflicted defeat on Roma in 13 unlucky attempts throughout his long career.
It’s a mark against Reja’s name. Even after guiding Lazio safely away from the relegation zone on taking charge of the club in February 2010 and then to within goal difference of a place in the Champions League in his first full season, he has never been accepted by the supporters who stand in the Curva Nord.
Tired of their negativity, Reja has already offered his resignation this season only to see Lazio owner Claudio Lotito stand by him and decline it.
The fans have booed his defensive tactics and whistled at the exclusion and subsequent departure of their idol, Mauro Zarate. Their biggest reservation of all, however, remains his record in the derby.
If he were to finally win one, it would go a long way to shutting them up. If not, then it may be time for Reja to check out of the suite he has been living in at the River Chateau hotel since moving to work in the capital 18 months ago.
Injury will keep Roma talisman Francesco Totti out of the team on Sunday.
Can Roma win without Totti?
A thigh injury robs the derby of its great protagonist. "No Totti, No Party," reads a banner in the Curva Sud. There will be no celebratory T-Shirts like "I have purged you again" in 1999 nor the provocative thumbs down gestures he made a decade later. Yet Totti is more than a provocateur. Sure, he talks the talk, prompting Lazio captain Tommaso Rocchi to call him a "comic actor", but he also walks the walk.
Totti proved the difference the last time Roma and Lazio met. He scored both goals in a bad-tempered 2-0 win, and his feelings of self-worth remain high. Any misunderstanding Totti had with coach Luis Enrique, notably following his unexpected substitution against Slovan Bratislava, appear to have been resolved.
Totti’s role has changed. He has been playing more as a classic No .10 again rather than as a false 9, which has laid bare the truth that Enrique’s 4-3-3 is actually a 4-3-1-2. Still, he continues to bring his influence to bear on the attack. Totti has attempted 22 shots and created 18 chances this season, 10 more than Miralem Pjanic, his nearest competitor at the club.
Pjanic stepped into Totti’s position in the final 20 minutes of Roma’s 3-1 victory over Atalanta and even managed to lay on an assist for Fabio Simplicio. He is a capable and perhaps more balanced, less static replacement. In any case, Roma have won derbies without Totti in the past, most famously in April 2010 when Claudio Ranieri took him and Daniele De Rossi off at half-time for letting the occasion get to them.
So it’s far from the end of the world, even if his experience could have come in handy considering that 12 players in the squad have never participated in a Rome derby.
What kind of game can we expect?
Even if Roma and Lazio plan on playing the same 4-3-1-2 system, this promises to be an intriguing clash of styles. In the red corner, there is Enrique’s possession-oriented, Barcelona-influenced, attacking brand of football. Whilst in the blue corner, there is Reja’s cautious and pragmatic gioco all’italiana.
This is borne out in the statistics. Roma hold on to the ball on average for approximately half an hour per game, their pass completion rate is the highest in Serie A (72.7%) and so is their territorial supremacy, a figure indicating the time spent in possession in the opponent’s half (14:04).
Logic dictates that if one team has the ball then the other can’t score, and this is also evident in Roma’s play. For instance, they have conceded four goals in five games thus far: hardly watertight, but a relatively solid record, nonetheless.
Conversely, possession is a means to an end and not an end in itself. It’s ultimately what a team does with it that counts, and Roma have been accused of being too patient, too ponderous and too slow in their build up play. While it’s true they have had more of the ball than Lazio this season, Reja’s side has on average registered more shots (5.8 per game) and scored more goals, albeit only one more.
Lazio’s style may be vertical and direct (and perhaps less easy on the eye), but with poachers like Djibril Cissé and Miroslav Klose up front it is certainly no less effective.
Who will be the difference maker?
Cissé, for one, has promised to repay his new club for aiding his return to the France squad. "I am someone who changes history," he said, alluding to Lazio’s recent misery in this fixture.
Cissé of course has come across Roma before. He put three goals past them in two games for Panathinaikos in the Europa League in 2010. Lest we forget, Roma are also a notch on Klose’s goal post from his days at Bayern Munich. A strained knee ligament, however, means that there are reservations about his fitness.
At the other end, it is tempting to say Pablo Daniel Osvaldo will make an impact. With three goals in his last three games, he is in form, while his strike partner Bojan Krkic, the supposed distant cousin of Lionel Messi, opened his account with a goal against Atalanta.
Yet there is a sense that this game will be decided in midfield. Daniele De Rossi has been Roma’s best player this season. Told to watch DVDs from last year of Barcelona B midfielder Oriol Romeu, now at Chelsea, who - in the style of Sergio Busquets - made a habit of dropping between the two centre-backs whenever the full-backs bombed forward, De Rossi is the foundation on which Enrique has built his Roma.
Defined as the ‘parachute role’, De Rossi carries the ball up and out of defense like a libero, picks the pass of a regista then falls back to become either an anchorman or a stopper. In doing so he performs four jobs in one. On Sunday, his multi-tasking will include defusing Hernanes and infusing Roma’s play.
Attention also falls on Cristian Ledesma. Since joining Lazio in 2006, he has been decisive in the derby for the right and the wrong reasons. Twice a goalscorer in this fixture, Ledesma has also been sent off three times. Roma need to get at him, not least because he is the source of Lazio’s play. Ledesma made more passes than anyone else in the last round of Serie A. He is their supply line.
The spotlight is on referee Paolo Tagliavento too with Lazio in particular crying foul. In two derbies, he has awarded three penalties (two of which were given in Roma’s favor) and handed out three red cards (all to Lazio). Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure: He’ll have another difficult evening on Sunday, as flashpoints are never far away in this most contested of derbies.