High-stakes Rome derby a credit to rising Roma and Lazio coaches
The build-up to the Rome derby usually starts at least a fortnight before kickoff, such is the importance of the fixture to Roma and Lazio's wildly passionate fans.
But the attention on and the subsequent fallout from Italy's World Cup playoff failure has been so great that the first derby of the season has almost sneaked up on supporters, despite it being a clash between two old rivals who, in the wake of the Gian Piero Ventura debacle, might be the bright young future of Italian management. A packed Stadio Olimpico awaits for one of the most important league derbies in years.
Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco, 48, and younger Lazio counterpart Simone Inzaghi, 41, come into the weekend's derby as coaching hot property and with people starting to wonder if they're going to repeat the league-winning triumphs of their playing careers. Di Francesco ended his Giallorossi playing days by taking the 2001 Scudetto, albeit after being made a bit-part player by Fabio Capello. A year earlier Inzaghi, who spent 11 years with Lazio, helped fire the Biancoceleste to a league and cup double with 19 goals in all competitions in his debut season in Rome.
Fast forward to 2017 and the two clubs under their stewardship both look like genuine contenders to Juventus' domestic dominance, even if neither manager wants to pronounce the word Scudetto. Five and four points, respectively, behind league leaders Napoli with a game in hand -- although Roma's is at resurgent Sampdoria while Lazio have the somewhat easier task of Udinese at home after both matches were rained off -- Di Francesco and Inzaghi take their teams into a derby that in recent years has begun to make noise outside the Eternal City's Aurelian walls.
Last year, Lazio handily beat Roma in the Coppa Italia semifinals, and no one in the city will forget Senad Lulic beating their deadly rivals and handing the cup to Lazio in 2013. Banners and graffiti are still put up by Laziali honouring the date, May 26, and notwithstanding Roma's better recent league record -- five wins, two draws and one defeat in the last eight league derbies -- the matches that count have largely gone to the other side of the city. Roma need to change that now that Lazio, led by Serie A's top scorer, Ciro Immobile, are up there making a surprise title bid.
Beyond local pride, Saturday's clash for Roma is above all a chance to show that they're serious about challenging for Serie A's top spot, even if Di Francesco is keen to put the brakes on the inevitable wave of expectation that the city puts on the team as soon as it strings a couple of good results together.
"We need to work hard to be good enough for the title," he said in the wake of Roma's 4-2 win at Fioentina before the international break. "I'm of the opinion that Juventus remain the team to beat: The new development is that maybe we've all caught up a bit on them. The important thing is that we're up there, and ready."
The Giallorossi's thumping win over Chelsea was the first time they had put on a convincing show against a big team after a stuttering start that included home defeats to Inter and Napoli, and while their 2-0 win at Milan was certainly a great result, it's a stretch to consider the Rossoneri "big" after their deeply disappointing opening few months.
Lazio, meanwhile, have already beaten Juventus twice this season, winning the Italian Supercup in dramatic fashion and becoming the first team to win at the Allianz Stadium in two years. Despite the 4-1 score line, Inzaghi's side were unlucky to lose at home to Napoli in September, more than matching the Serie A leaders until they lost two centre-backs to injury.
"Juventus are the best team in Italy and if you beat them twice, it's not an accident," Inzaghi said after his side beat Nice to qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League with two matches to spare. "With a smaller squad than Juve, Napoli, Inter, Roma and maybe even Milan, the dedication and commitment of these players means that we can take on anyone."
His team's early season record shows just that. Inzaghi's side have inherited his attacking playing style, winning all but two of their fixtures in all competitions this season and scoring 31 goals in 11 league matches. The only dropped points apart from that Napoli defeat were a goalless draw with newly-promoted SPAL on the opening day.
Roma have won their last five and mirroring their coach's combative style from his playing days, over the last two months have slowly grown into a mature team that have drastically improved at the back despite losing Antonio Rudiger to Chelsea. Just seven league goals conceded and eight clean sheets has more than offset the lowest goal tally in the top six.
One of Inzaghi's irresistible force and Di Francesco's immovable objects will have to give. Which one will it be?
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley