FFT.com's man in Italy, Richard Whittle, reports on another anticipated Lazio-Roma derby...
May 26 2013 is etched into the memory of Roman football as the day Lazio overcame Roma in the first-ever Derby della Capitale Italian Cup final. In fact, the date is etched in stone on the wall outside Lazio’s training ground; their crowning moment against the old enemy.
But not much has changed since for the Biancocelesti, who have failed to move on from the moment they had the wolf by the throat. Roma were left licking their wounds, but spent the summer in a healing process which included the arrival of new coach Rudi Garcia and the strengthening of a demoralised squad.
Lazio still had reason to believe that the eagle would soar over Rome. Their own coach Vladimir Petkovic – in his first year in charge – could seemingly do no wrong after his cup triumph, while Miroslav Klose was back and hungry for the goals that would take him to a fourth World Cup with Germany. Owner Claudio Lotito was predicting a new dawn for Lazio; he would send Roma’s American owners back across the Atlantic defeated and humbled.
However, when the fixture list came out Roma were preparing for immediate revenge. The derby was the third game of the season, and they won it 2-0. From there Lazio went into freefall while their neighbours prospered, and by the Christmas break Petkovic was on his way after a 4-1 defeat at Hellas Verona. Word got out that the coach had accepted the job of managing Switzerland when Ottmar Hetzfeld stepped down after next summer’s World Cup, which infuriated the ever-combustible Lotito. It was a betrayal of the highest order for the president, who raged that it was like finding your wife in bed with another man.
Edy the Eagle
Despite Petkovic insisting he was totally focused on his club duties until the end of the season, he was sent packing, and someone a little more dependable in Edy Reja was ushered back in. It was somewhat of a surprise that, at 68, Reja was wooed back into Lotito’s arms having previously disagreed with Lotito over transfers, and at a club where he had received his fair share of abuse from the fans.
However, after nearly two years dabbling with media work and knowing the next time may well be his last in the big time, steady Edy returned to the training ground as the fourth-oldest coach in top-flight history.
Klose was certainly happy to see Reja back in charge. The pair had enjoyed an excellent relationship first time out, when the coach’s tactics revolved around getting the ball to his striker inside the area and letting him do the rest. In fact, it was the German who persuaded Reja to stay on at the club when he was about to walk out in the first month of the 2011/12 season.
Upon Reja's return, Klose responded by scoring the only goal against Inter at the beginning of January. Since then Lazio haven't lost in the league, and came close to taking Napoli to extra-time in the Italian Cup before losing 1-0 at the San Paolo. Victory would have set up a rematch with Rome in the semi-finals, and the tantalising reality of three derbies in a week.
Owner Lotito continues to work within his means, though, and jumped at the opportunity to accept €20 million from Inter for Hernanes, even though the owner insisted it was the playmaker who demanded a move. The fans were apparently less believing, with Lotito claiming after the sale that he had received a number of death threats over the phone. In fact, he had to field a call from an irate fan while speaking to journalists.
Despite Fabio Quagliarella and Jonathan Biabiany refusing to join the Romans during the winter transfer window, Lotito has continued to unearth star potential. The latest of those is teenager Keita Balde Diao, who came through Barcelona's youth ranks but was released at 16. An agent brought the youngster to the attention of a colleague in Italy. On a visit to Rome to watch Lazio lose to Juventus, Keita spotted Hernanes leaving the stadium after the game, and let the established star know he might be his team-mate soon. Hernanes was suitably impressed upon hearing he had been at Barcelona, so the story goes, but could never have predicted the impact the youngster would make before he walked out the door at Lazio himself.
When it came to derby time, Reja was in no mood to play open and expansive football, claiming he would be more than content with a draw. But few could have imagined just how bland his tactics would be.
The most inflammatory thing he did all week was make an off-the-cuff remark about hoping a few Roma players would get injured in their cup match against Napoli. On the pitch, Lazio didn't produce a shot on target all afternoon as the derby ended goalless for the first time since 1996.
Reja could claim it was mission accomplished with it being only the third time Garcia’s team had failed to score, although the 'visitors' were wasteful on a number of occasions and missed the target 14 times. Gervinho had a goal disallowed for offside – all of 20cm, claimed the eagle-eyed analysts scrutinising the replay.
Keita, who at 18 was the youngest player on the pitch, was starved of any service and withdrawn at half-time to be replaced by Stefano Mauri, whose last appearance had been as captain in the cup final. Since then he'd sat out a ban for match-fixing which was cut from nine to six months.
With Klose doing his best work defensively, Lazio all but gave up any thoughts of attacking or even maintaining possession – Roma enjoyed 60% of the ball but even with four forwards, Adem Ljajic, Michel Bastos, Mattia Destro and Gervinho, on the pitch for the final quarter, their incessant pressure couldn't produce the breakthrough.
The biggest cheer from Roma fans came just before the final whistle when news arrived that Hellas Verona had grabbed a last-gasp equaliser against Juventus. It meant Roma hadn't lost ground on the leaders but remain nine points behind. For Lazio, it proved just how far they've fallen since ruling Rome last May.