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Oct 25, 2011

Eternal rivalry yet similar directions

In the final minute of injury time, Miroslav Klose brought a pass from Matuzalem under control and had the time, quality and nerve to slot his side-footed shot past the Roma goalkeeper.

The German international's fourth goal of the season a week ago - his sixth in eight games since joining the Biancocelesti - helped his Lazio side come from behind to end ten-man Roma's series of five consecutive wins against their crosstown rivals, stretching back to April 2009. The Rome Derby is quite simply the biggest rivalry in Italian football, its passion and polarising effect are unsurpassed by any other in Serie A.

It is most certainly the most fervently contested, both on the pitch and in the stands where the game has historically been marked by huge crowds, violence and never seems able to pass without incident. It is a tie packed with the sporting, historical and political tensions that combine in most of football's truly great rivalries.

The glamour, prestige and history of the derby's Milanese counterpart is often held up as being the embodiment of everything Calcio, yet the game has far less meaning than when Roma and Lazio go head to head. Perhaps it is due to the relative lack of success from the two capital clubs; where Milan and Inter can cover a loss to their neighbours with the Scudetto or even a Champions League win, victory in the Derby della Capitale is often the highlight of a season for its two protagonists who between them share just five league titles.

Yet this season, perhaps more than ever, Roma and Lazio represent two very different and diametrically opposed approaches - both in terms of the changes made on the field and the decisions taken away from the pitch - as they look to the future. Watching their progress thus far this term shows each needs to make improvements in a number of areas, but there are also a huge number of positives to be taken.

Roma have completely overhauled since the arrival of new owner Thomas Di Benedetto, new sporting director Walter Sabatini working intelligently and quickly to provide Luis Enrique with a squad of players tailored to his needs. As if to highlight just how great the changes have been, only two players - Daniele De Rossi and Simone Perrotta had previously played in a derby match prior to this latest encounter.

The signings of Gabriel Heinze, Simon Kjaer, Jose Angel and, perhaps most essentially, Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg were important, as the solidity they provide allow the team to play in the manner demanded by the Spaniard.

Luis Enrique has turned his team from pragmatists under Claudio Ranieri, to one that places its belief in a passing fluidity unseen on the peninsula and a system that demands constant movement from the players to maximise and exploit the spaces created. Roma stumbled early, losing their first match at home to Cagliari but went on to record wins over Parma and Atalanta, leading to some extremely premature calls for Luis Enrique to be replaced. But beyond the results is a team playing some very attractive football, moving the ball around beautifully and getting highly positive contributions from Pablo Osvaldo, Miralem Pjanic and Bojan Krkic.

The Giallorossi faithful impatiently awaited the debut of exciting Argentinian talent Erik Lamela but he delivered in full this past weekend, scoring the only goal of the game in their win over Palermo to further endear himself with his new fans and stir much press hyperbole.

What is clear is there are a plethora of players able to play the possession based attacking football the coach demands. The fans famously declare their 'No Totti, no party' belief, but that win in Sicily - added to what we saw last Sunday evening in his absence with Pjanic deployed much deeper than the iconic captain would have been - allows far greater freedom of movement from Osvaldo and Bojan in what must be considered a small glimpse of the teams future.

Across town - in stark contrast with the sweeping changes at Roma but again in a complete break with their own traditional state of constant turmoil - Lazio have stabilised under Edy Reja. The coach has benefited from a sound transfer strategy, again something normally alien during Claudio Lotito's reign in charge of the club. They may have lost important players in Fernando Muslera and Stephan Lichtsteiner, but they were replaced intelligently as Federico Marchetti and Abdoulay Konko arrived. In addition, the squad was strengthened massively through the captures of Klose and Djibril Cissé, the goal scorers so clearly missing last season.

Perhaps their best piece of transfer business this past summer however was in retaining the services of Brazilian playmaker Hernanes, a man whose creativity, vision and invention made him comfortably the club's stand-out player last season. He was also a key figure in last weekend's derby, scoring a penalty to bring Lazio level at 1-1 following the game-changing dismissal of Kjaer early in the second half.

The win, added to the more recent triumph over Bologna, moved Lazio up to second in the table and to within a point of the leaders while Roma now sit sixth but are just three points behind their rivals. While it was pleasing to see Zdenek Zeman proved wrong after he stated his belief that the derby is "better to watch the stands than the pitch, as that is where the real spectacle lies", it is also true that one game between these two old foes proves nothing.

While Serie A's traditional powerbase lies in Milan and Turin, those northern teams must begin to pay much closer attention to a capital-based duo. The new-look Roma and a now stable Lazio look set to be challenging the top of the Serie A table all season.

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