Roma's wobbly confidence could be put right with good result vs. Napoli
Nothing is more indicative of the volatility of Rome's football public than the reaction to a derby defeat. In a city where few trophies are handed out, how Roma and Lazio fare in their local encounters colours the entire season and fans don't easily forgive defeats.
When former Roma coach Rudi Garcia arrived for the summer meet-up at the Trigoria training ground ahead of the 2013-14 season, he was greeted by a group of fans who, still livid at the previous season's Coppa Italia final defeat to Lazio, had travelled all the way there to let their team know that they hadn't forgotten the humiliation the previous season.
A non-plussed Miralem Pjanic was submerged with insults as he arrived for the get-together, driving over fake €100 notes left for the "mercenaries" around Piazzale Dino Viola, but apart from the sainted Francesco Totti, they all copped it. A banner put up for the players read "Welcome back, merde," alongside the date that the Laziali will forever have over their Romanista rivals: "May 26, 2013." After a record 10 wins on the bounce from the Garcia-led Roma, however, all that preseason bile was washed away. The players were infallible again and all was right with the world. Until it wasn't again, of course, and Garcia was charged out of town.
Wednesday's 2-0 loss to Lazio in the semifinals of the same competition might not be on the level of that era defining disaster, but it's done enough to start rumblings of discontent in the Eternal City and Saturday afternoon's visit of third-place Napoli will be crucial in making sure derby dissatisfaction doesn't develop into a deeper crisis of confidence among supporters.
As is customary, the local media are already tightening their laces, ready to stick the boot in. While fans online lamented Luciano Spalletti's decision to bring on 40-year-old Totti with just four minutes to go (10, if you count the extended stoppage time), Rome-based daily paper Il Messaggero published an article claiming (via a clumsy metaphor) that Roma lack "the drive that comes more from your heart than your legs."
The Corriere Dello Sport meanwhile just happened to publish a piece on Totti, reporting on a dinner with friends and full of speculation that the Roma captain isn't happy with how his lack of game time and might quit at the end of the season. It's all stuff that anyone who follows Roma already knows but obviously couldn't come out if Spalletti's team were smashing four past La Liga's best defence and crushing the likes of Fiorentina and Internazionale at home. A derby defeat, however, releases all the poison.
Luckily, not everyone's taking the bait for now. Sometime on Thursday night, the Fedayn group of hardcore ultrà supporters left a more encouraging banner outside Trigoria that read "nothing is lost," encouraging the team to kick on after a comprehensive defeat that leaves their chances of a first trophy in nine years looking a lot worse -- especially given the horrendously tricky Europa League trip to Alexandre Lacazette and Lyon coming up on Thursday.
Spalletti's team thankfully have a habit of bouncing back after defeat. Roma have lost seven times in all competitions this season, winning six and drawing one of the games that followed. The latest was that marvellous 3-1 win at Inter, which came after Roma's second string fell 1-0 to Villarreal in the second leg of a Europa League tie that was already done and dusted in Spain. The other five wins, however, have all come against middling to weak opposition: Crotone after Fiorentina, Astra Giurgiu after Torino, Viktoria Plzen after Atalanta, Chievo after Juventus and Cesena after Sampdoria.
It will be a different story against Napoli this weekend despite a shock home defeat of their own to Atalanta last week. Their exciting trident of Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dreis Mertens will be all present and correct, as will Marek Hamsik lurking behind them. Spalletti has his first-choice XI available but with Lyon around the corner and Napoli just five points back from Roma, surely he must be thinking about resting a few key players and setting his side up not to lose.
While a draw on Saturday would end Roma's 100 percent home record, it would nonetheless be a fine result given that between Sunday and the second leg of the derby semifinal, Roma have to travel to Palmero and face Sassuolo and Empoli at home. A few changes would also help shake off the obvious fatigue on display on Wednesday night, which was far more of a factor in the derby defeat than any "lack of heart" even if Spalletti claims that his team isn't tired.
Now, more than at any time in the season, they need a response.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley