Eagles flying high
Waking up in Rome on Monday morning, hearing the word "Lazio" many times around the main train station, where there must be a "smoking compulsory" sign, seemed to confirm that there is a different tone to this fledgling Serie A season.
The biggest reason for Lazio's excellent start to the season, the only blemish is a heavy 4-1 reversal at Milan on September 21, is Mauro Zarate, the 21-year-old Argentinian forward quick on his feet and fast on the turn. He is now Serie A's top scorer with six goals after bagging a brace in the 3-1 walkover at Torino, although one of the goals came from a penalty that Zarate converted past stand-in goalkeeper Nicola Ventola.
Funny how restricted some people's view is: Zarate is now seen as a masterpiece of Lazio's scouting system which is apparently based on the safe principle "we have no money for players so find us a hidden gem", but wasn't he the same guy who almost kept Birmingham City in the Premier League last season?
Was watching the Blues on Sky Italy's live matches such a great piece of scouting? Whatever the opinion - and, as everywhere else in the world, local pundits do tend to have a very parochial one - the "real" Zarate, a brother of the rat-tailed Sergio El Ratòn who distinguished himself more for his gypsy looks than his game at Ancona in the early Nineties and is now Mauro's agent, has livened up Lazio's forward line. Zarate's impact has been such that Lazio have not missed their leading scorer from last season, Tommaso Rocchi, who was injured while playing for Italy at the Olympics last month.
Coach Delio Rossi, one of the more honest-sounding guys you'd find in Serie A, made it through some difficult times last year, when he struggled in January to accommodate Alessandro Bianchi into the well-oiled 4-3-1-2 machine he'd gone with for a while, but has now found the perfect formula in a 4-3-3 with a lot of different looks. That is, until Rocchi, a skilled forward who does not receive the credit he deserves, comes back to full fitness and causes what in journalistic terms is known as a "selection headache", for which no Italian treatment seems to have been found.
The 1-4 defeat at Milan, who were bottom of the table at the time - Cagliari, still on nil points, unfortunately seem not to count, or rather to be down already - must have planted some seeds of doubt about Lazio's ability to stand up to the better sides, but while most observers noted that the Biancazzurri were perhaps too timid against Milan, when right-flank livewire Pasquale Foggia was only introduced in the second half, Rossi himself timidly pointed out his side were too adventurous, especially once the hosts had scored their second goal.
"We were not out of this world before this defeat, we're not donkeys now" was the coach's honest assessment of a side whose real value will be known soon. Lazio play Lecce at home on Saturday evening in what should be a home win, then after the international break travel to beleaguered Bologna, who may be on a five-match losing streak by then, and will be at home again on October 26 in what would now be a top-of-the-table clash with Napoli.
"Oh, ma questa Lazio?" does not then sound as down-to-earth as its American-English version would ("how 'bout dem Eagles"), but it does have a nice ring around Roma, where the eponymous side are - for the time being - limited to making a barely perceived noise when they beat Atalanta 2-0. Roma's problems are well known, or at least have been widely publicized: the clockwork neatness of past editions of the Giallorossi seems to have lost a screw here and a lug there, and their methodical, one-paced game, which had been their forté for a while, seems to have turned into a liability because they cannot change the tempo when they need to recover from a deficit.
It goes deeper than that and we'll examine Roma another day, but one huge problem does loom: with Francesco Totti still struggling to recover from last spring's knee injury, Roma seem reluctant - no, make that terrified - to look for alternatives for their 32-year old captain, and this means the unorthodox centre-forward role Totti plays has not been upgraded for a while. But since this was the case last year, too, when the Giallorossi took Inter to the wire and reached the Champions League quarter-finals, perhaps it's just a matter of the newcomers settling in and some of the injured players finding their feet again.
Further up the peninsula, the Serie A program was completed by Milan's 1-0 win over Inter in a derby which did not rank high on style points, but did provide a few interesting asides, as it always does. After starting with two defeats, Milan have now won three in a row. People had noticed the wins had come once Carlo Ancelotti had left Ronaldinho on the bench, going for substance over style, but it was the Brazilian who scored the Rossoneri's only goal against Inter.
You can hardly say a Ronaldinho bullet header from a Kaka' cross was the tactical ploy Milan had in mind when they completed their two-year courting of the former Barcelona player in the summer, but hey, no one was complaining on the Rossonera half of the city late on Sunday. And it's not like Milan did not deserve to win: although José Mourinho pointed out a draw would have been the right result Inter never grabbed control in midfield and their opponents looked lighter on their feet and faster on the break. With Andrea Pirlo still out injured, the job of roaming the middle of the park and providing a spark fell this time to the immensely proud Clarence Seedorf, whose value for Milan - and gravitas in the dressing room - cannot be underestimated.
Inter looked tense and nervous and the midfield's failure to support the front three, among whom Ricardo Quaresma was especially disappointing, must have frustrated Mourinho and his staff as suspicions of little brain and big brawn again engulf one of the Portuguese's sides.
One final note (reader discretion advised): one of the things I have often written in this column is that in my opinion Italians do not really love football as a sport, but are attracted to it because it is (apparently) easy to understand and it thus provides a topic, just like politics and the weather (not just in the UK, then), where everyone can feel an expert and tell, rather scream, his or her opinion. It is no coincidence that an old saying goes: whoever coaches the national team has good company because more than 50 million Italians share the job with him.
Well, what did Mourinho say the other day, when all people were talking about was the disrespect he'd shown TV stations and print journalists by having his assistant Beppe Baresi (promptly called "Franco" by a TV presenter. Now THAT'S disrespect) take his place in the press conference after Inter had bored their way past Lecce?
"If what stirs your passion is certain TV talk shows or the fact Baresi replaced me, not that Lecce played with three goalkeepers and eight defenders [writer's note: having flown in, they apparently had no bus to park in front of the goal, as Spurs had done at Stamford Bridge three years ago], if you're more worried about those things than the fact Italian football is just a small product which cannot bear comparison to the Premier League and La Liga outside Italy, then perhaps you do not love football in this country as much as I thought you did".
Which either means Mourinho and, more modestly, yours truly go about our jobs with knee-jerk reactions, or that we're both geniuses. Pick your poison.