Vastly overshadowed by El Classico and further diminished by the relatively anonymous seasons both Roma and Lazio are having, there doesn’t seem to be the usual amount of excitement surrounding this Sunday’s Derby Della Capitale.
Both teams were recently eliminated from European play, supporters from both clubs are still protesting the barriers erected this year to divide the curve, and neither of the two sides has anything particularly meaningful to play for. Yes, the rivalry between Lazio and Roma remains one of the fiercest in the world, and the importance of the bragging rights at stake should never be underestimated, but one cannot escape the feeling that the air has been let out of the derby balloon to some degree.
The good news is that the match will have the traditional 3pm kick-off time, meaning that fans of the beautiful game can use it as the perfect antipasto for the La Liga action later in the evening (or afternoon, if you are stuck on this side of the pond like I am). The Rome derby should also be an entertaining affair since both teams are noticeably stronger in attack than they are in defense. El Shaarawy, Salah and Perotti have been doing a lot of damage in recent weeks, and the Candreva/Anderson pairing, supported by Biglia, is quite formidable as well. Contrast that with a Lazio back line completely devoid of starters, and in some cases featuring third-string options like Partric and Braafheid, and a Roma defense that has been shaky all year, and the action might be more reminiscent of the Premier League than Serie A.
And of course it wouldn’t be a Rome derby without mention of the referee. Is has become something of a tradition for Lazio to be the victim of at least one horrible refereeing decision per match (see the absurd penalty to awarded to Roma in the most recent derby, last fall), and the appointment of Luca Banti to oversee the match will keep many a Lazio supporter up worrying on Saturday night. According to statistics reported on radio station Radiosei, over the course of 15 matches officiated involving Lazio, Banti has awarded three penalties against the Biancoceleste. Meanwhile, in the 28 matches that Banti has worked for AS Roma, he has yet to call a single penalty kick against the Giallorossi. Surely an ominous sign.
Lazio are accustomed to playing the role of the underdog, however. Despite having won the most important derby in the history of the encounter, in 2013 when they prevailed in the Italian Cup final against their city rivals, and being the club that has achieved more success in recent years, it is the cousins from the other side of the Tiber that typically hold the title of favorite when the two sides collide. Yet these reduced expectations might actually end up working to Lazio’s advantage during a match that is always extremely emotional. Close observers will recall many more poor performances from native Romans, De Rossi and Totti, than good ones, and the exorbitant number of bookings accumulated by both players in the derby serves as further evidence that the incredible intensity and importance of the match is felt not only by the fans, but also the twenty on the pitch.
Zooming out for a moment to the rest of Serie A and Italian football as a whole, the month of March has to go down as one of the worst in recent memory.
Within a brief two week span, the likes of Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina and Napoli were all eliminated from European competition, meaning not a single Serie A team will appear in continental play for the remainder of the season. And while Juventus put up a valiant performance against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and Lazio at least managed to beat Galatasaray to advance one round in the Europa League, overall, it was a very poor reflection on a once great league that appeared on track to regaining some of its former glory, along with a coveted 4th qualifying slot for the Champions League. Pile on top of this a disastrous national team performance against Germany, after having held their own against a weakened Spain side, and there is plenty of grumbling that Italian soccer has gone back to square one. Short on money, short on talent and short on ideas.
The lone bright spot remains the nation’s coaching talent, which is likely still the best in the world. Ranieri is working a miracle at Leicester, in the aftermath of Benitez we now see how undervalued Ancelotti was at Real Madrid, Conte has been drafted in to lift Chelsea out of the gutter, and Alleghri continues to outshine his foreign counterparts in Seria A, with his closest rival being his upstart compatriot Sarri at Napoli.
As far as building blocks go, coaching certainly is a good place to start, and if a few more promising names emerge alongside the likes of Insigne, Verratti and Donnarumma, the long awaiting resurgence might truly come about. Of course both AC Milan and Inter Milan will have to get their houses in order if Serie A is to reemerge as well, but fortunately economic problems can generally be resolved much quicker than those of a more human nature.
Sean Sedacca covers Italian soccer for Bigsoccerhead. You can also listen to Sean on the Bigsoccerhead Podcast.
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