Preview: The Rome Derby

Don’t ask ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ – rather, ahead of this weekend’s Rome derby, ask what will they do for us. 

First asked in Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’, the issue of ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ has since been the preserve of far less entertaining environs – interminable history lessons mostly. Thankfully however, this is no lesson, but a look towards Sunday’s ‘Derby della Capitale‘, the captivating, powder-keg clash between AS Roma and Lazio that promises to explode any tired old cliches still associated with calcio.

Forged from social divisions within Italy’s capital, the derby is a microcosm of a genuine hostility which divides Rome into two clear factions. A degree of division which has previously manifested in the form of riots, match abandonments and ultimately deaths. And as Italy’s carabinieri strive to ensure hostilities are articulated just through unsavory chants and provocative banners, Rome’s Stadio Olimpico remains a spectacular stage for some true footballing theatre.

In the grand scheme of Serie A football, neither club has enjoyed the kind of success bestowed upon both Milan clubs and the old lady of Juventus. Starved of ‘scudetti’, the Rome derby has that cachet of being a proverbial cup final for tifosi of either club. After Lazio’s double last season, bragging rights currently belong with the blue half of Rome, a fact that rankles an expectant Roma contingent, desperate to see the promise of recent investment come to fruition.

In eighteen short months AS Roma have undergone an astonishing transformation. The first club to fall into non-Italian ownership, Roma have experimented with tiki-taka philosophies, endured managerial changes, and have seen a raft of players come and go. This season, under new management once more, Roma are led by one of calcio’s more notable characters, Zdenek Zeman, a Czech born tactician noted for a trademark cigarette and idiosyncratic brand of attack-centric football. Interestingly, and adding a little extra spice to proceedings, the sixty-five year old coach has the dubious honour of having managed both capital clubs during a coaching career now into its fourth decade.

Born of constant change, Roma’s current form errs towards the erratic. A myriad of signings has bought good, bad and indeed indifference to the capital, and establishing Roma’s optimum XI remains work in progress. However, in the effervescent Francesco Totti and emerging Erik Lamela, Roma’s generational gap is seamlessly bridged. Furthermore, accompanied by the formidable tour de force that is forward Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, it is is unsurprising that the Giallorossi boast Serie A’s most potent strike force. Unfortunately for Zeman however, defensive frailties mean Roma also claim the league’s most porous defence.

Similarly, Lazio find themselves under new management and in a partial state of flux. Led by Bosnian, Vladimir Petkovic, the Biancocelesti started the season brightly and looked capable of consolidating upon last seasons fourth place finish. Thanks largely to the shrewd acquisition of the prolific German striker, Miroslav Klose and the presence of mercurial midfielder Hernanes, Lazio not only beat Roma twice last campaign, but finished three places above their chief rivals, finishing fourth and securing Europa Cup football for 2012/13.

Lately however, signs of the demands placed by European activities may begin to tax Petkovic’s men and only last weekend Lazio were soundly beaten at Catania in a 4-0 whitewash. With a further Europa tie against Panathinaikos on the Thursday prior to Sunday’s showdown, Petkovic is acutely aware of the need to guard against fatigue and also mindful of Roma who will be fresh after their 4-1 mauling of Palermo, free  as they are of European obligation.

So, advantage to Roma then? Certainly, the Giallorosso possess a prolific attack, largely propelled by incredible levels of fitness attributed to Zdenek Zeman’s infamously penal training regime, a combination that could hurt a jaded Lazio. Zeman’s modus operandi is built on an indefatigable, ‘fast forward’ ethos and when fully functional, Roma can tirelessly dismantle teams as they did against a forlorn Rosanero last weekend. However, just as Roma have scored twelve times in their last four outings, their woeful concession rate continues to cause alarm and Lazio will look to draw upon ‘home’ advantage to help expose Roma’s decidedly soft underbelly.

For goals, Lazio rely somewhat on the marquee name of Miroslav Klose, but to be fair, the Biancocelesti also boast a fine midfield capable of assisting the German and offering contributions of their own. South American duo Mauro Zarate and Hernanes are both gifted playmakers whose Serie A stock continues to rise, while in Antonio Candreva, Lazio boast a burgeoning Azzurri talent and bona fide Roman to lock horns with Roma’s Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti, both prodigal sons of the eternal city. And nothing stirs the souls of Laziale and Romanisti like seeing their very own grace Rome’s living amphitheater.

Technically speaking, all the elements are present to make this occasion a must-watch affair. South American flair, coupled with the passion and ‘grinta’ bought by homegrown stock will light up the capital. Against a vociferous, technicolour backdrop of flares and flags we will almost undoubtedly witness footballing fire and brimstone, and if that were not sufficient, quite possibly for Roma, this game could carry added gravitas,if that were possible. Presenting wider ranging ramifications dependent upon the outcome.

Daniele De Rossi, the much vaunted midfield general is currently out of favour with Zdenek Zeman and should the Roman be omitted from the derby of all games, his cup final, the chasm between coach and player may finally widen beyond repair. As January looms, talk is already circulating about De Rossi’s potential sale with fans already staging protests at this prospect. Defeat to Lazio with the omission of the man known as ‘capitano futuro’ may well prove a tipping point as those bothered by Zeman’s erraticism finally lose faith – and if this happens, prepare for combustion on an epic, season altering scale.

So, as you can see, permutations abound and this Rome derby is guaranteed to be a great deal more than just another spectacle, or game of football and in the cauldron that is the Stadio Olimpico, the Romans are once again destined to do so much for us all. Enjoy.

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Stuart Harper

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