Rome Derby: Lazio, Roma face off with much more than city bragging rights at stake

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It’s been a rough week for Roman sides. Both Roma and Lazio suffered elimination in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals and head into Sunday’s Derby della Capitale (12 pm ET on ESPN 2/ESPN3) licking their wounds. Lazio mustn’t let it check their momentum and dampen the enthusiasm percolating around the team at the moment. They can point to the bad refereeing in Naples, the misfortune of Ciro Immobile slipping as he missed his penalty and the role the woodwork played in twice denying them an equaliser.

Roma on the other hand had one of those nights in Turin. They have never earned a result against Juventus since the Allianz Stadium’s construction and Wednesday was no different. Down 3-0 at half-time, Roma threatened to repeat Napoli’s comeback from August (ruined by Kalidou Koulibaly‘s late own-goal) with Cengiz Under scoring via a ricochet and Alessandro Florenzi dashing through for one against one with Gianluigi Buffon. Ultimately, they came up short, and if we are being honest, Juventus could have padded their advantage more with better finishing. “We played well up until the final third,” Paulo Fonseca said. “The principal difference between us and our opponents at the moment is effectiveness.”

Last time around

Roma got lucky against their “cousins” in September, as Lazio shook the frame of the goal four times and must have wondered how they didn’t win. It reinforces that Simone Inzaghi’s team could have even more points than they do now even in the midst of an 11-game Serie A winning streak. Lazio pinned Roma back and isolated Edin Dzeko. They wreaked havoc down the flanks, particularly Under and Florenzi’s side and created gilt-edged chances for Manuel Lazzari and Joaquin Correa to win the game.

While the Biancocelesti have only gained in confidence since then, rivals Roma have also made considerable progress. The first derby came too soon to draw any definitive conclusions about Fonseca. The season was a fortnight old and the transfer market still open. The likes of Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were yet to arrive and the new manager was still settling on his best XI. Inzaghi, by contrast, was fine-tuning a machine he has spent the last three years working on.

Sunday will serve as another yardstick to adjudicate how far Roma have come under the Portuguese boss. The trouble is — and this has been the case all season — injuries continue to ravage his squad. Lest we forget, Roma trialled a series of free agents in November, including Jack Rodwell, on account of a lengthy casualty list in midfield. Justin Kluivert has only just returned from a thigh strain and has no back up, while Roma are sweating on the fitness of Amadou Diawara, a key balancing agent in the team and one of their best performers over the last couple of months. Then there’s Nicolo Zaniolo who is out for the rest of the season after an ACL rupture two weeks again against Juventus. In other words, Fonseca needs his sporting director Gianluca Petrachi to pull some strings in what remains of the transfer window.

The magicians

One of the explanations for Lazio’s exit from the cup in midweek was the absence of Luis Alberto. The low-profile Spaniard is back to his best and deserves to go to the Euros this summer. If Ciro Immobile is already on 23 league goals for the season, a lot of it is down to Alberto’s defence-splitting passes. He leads the league in chances created (56) and assists (11) and it’s a mystery why he hasn’t aroused greater interest than Sevilla.

Striving to have more influence on the game than Alberto is Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini. As a Roman, the derby holds a special significance for him. Francesco Totti has been careful not to nominate the Italy international as his heir apparent. However, his opinion that Pellegrini is Roma’s most talented player and future captain material brings major expectation. Had an ankle injury not caused the 23-year-old to miss a month he’d likely be neck-and-neck with Alberto on the assist charts. Pellegrini has nine in all competitions this season (seven in Serie A) and set up three of Roma’s four goals against Sassuolo. Some of his passes could be exhibited in the city’s Museum of Modern Art.

After drawing their first meeting of the season, Roma and Lazio face off Sunday with much more than city bragging rights on the line.

The gunslingers

Dzeko’s value to Roma was underscored in Turin on Wednesday night. Nikola Kalinic remains a shadow of the player he was at Fiorentina and has now gone a year without a goal in all competitions. Sending him back to Atletico Madrid and bringing in an upgrade would be advisable. It’s just that finding a decent back-up striker for an affordable fee is easier said than done in January as a number of other clubs around Europe are finding out.

Dzeko is the lowest scoring striker in the top six with only eight league goals this season, but his ability to act as a focal point and bring others into play with slick combinations is vital. Immobile has scored nearly three times more goals than the Bosnian and would have had his 30th for the season for club and country had the San Paolo turf not given way underneath him at the most inopportune time on Tuesday. One of the factors in Roma defending so deep in the last derby was the fear of him running in behind. Denying the two-time Capocannoniere winner, who has scored in 14 of his 19 league games this season, will be of considerable preoccupation to Smalling and his partner Gianluca Mancini.

The stakes

One place separates the pair but Lazio have a seven-point lead on Roma and a game in hand. Already in striking distance of Inter in second, Lazio know the next fortnight won’t be easy for Juventus with trips to Naples and Florence next up for the Bianconeri. No longer in either Europe or the Coppa Italia, Inzaghi’s side can also now focus entirely on a Scudetto push.

Naturally nothing would give Roma supporters greater satisfaction than putting an end to Lazio’s winning streak and putting a serious dent in their rivals’ title dreams. The Giallorossi will know the Atalanta result going into this game and are crossing their fingers Gian Piero Gasperini’s side drop points for a third straight game. The battle for fourth spot will come down to those two.

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