The early stages of the season are turning into a tale of two cities. But while the teams from Turin and Milan have found their stride, the real pace-setters can be found in Rome and Naples.
Coming into round four of the Serie A campaign, the only sides bragging 100 per cent records were Napoli and AS Roma, although in truth their opposition could be considered no more than mid-table scrappers and relegation fodder.
Rafa Benitez’s Napoli had seen off Bologna, Chievo and Atalanta, while Rudi Garcia’s Romans had dispatched Livorno, Verona and Parma without having to extend themselves. But both new coaches faced their first stern tests at the weekend.
Roma came up against Lazio for the first time since being defeated by their bitter city rivals in the Italian Cup in May.
The build-up to the Rome derby has always been fraught and tense, but Garcia approached it with the mindset that it was another match that had to be won – and going against all previous tradition he even allowed an open training session two days before the game.
Club president James Pallotta also presented Francesco Totti with a two-year contract extension 48 hours before kick-off in another measure to take the limelight away from the big showdown. In doing so he sent out a calming message that the talismanic captain would be with the club for the rest of his professional life.
Garcia was unhindered getting his players focused, but also in honing his tactics to perfection. His opposite number Vladimir Petkovic, meanwhile, let slip in the pre-game press conference that he knew where Roma’s weaknesses were, and that his side would exploit them.
Roma boss Garcia got this one right
The obvious inference he was making was that his opponents would struggle along the flanks, as they had done in the cup final. Then, Lazio’s wide midfielders Antonio Candreva and Senad Lulic were able to race to the byline time after time – and the pair combined for the only goal scored by Lulic.
Petkovic predicted Roma would be their own worst enemy, with the likes of Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi allowing the pressure to get to them.
Instead, Garcia made sure his side didn’t start at full throttle where potential mistakes could be costly, and dropped midfielders Kevin Strootman and Miralem Pjanic back to add protection to full-backs Federico Balzaretti and Douglas Maicon.
Giving up possession for the first quarter served only to force Lazio to work harder in midfield, where Alvaro Gonzalez and Hernanes failed to produce any decisive passes. Cristian Ledesma came forward only to close down De Rossi whenever the Roma man received the ball off central defenders Leandro Castan and Mehdi Benatia.
Roma had scored each of their eight goals this season in the second half, a stat Petkovic would have been keen to even out. But Miroslav Klose was too often isolated and Lazio suffered once again.
Roma came out for the second half firing, immediately dominated possession and peppered the Lazio goal with efforts. They eventually made the breakthrough just after the hour mark through Balzaretti who, having got the measure of Candreva and safe in the knowledge that Strootman was covering, had ventured forward to get on the end of Totti’s cross with a precise shot into the corner of the net.
Balzaretti celebrates his opener for Roma
While Petkovic could only turn to the one-dimensional Sergio Floccari in attack, Garcia had the eager and supremely gifted Adem Ljajic waiting to make his mark – and it was the substitute who ran the Lazio defence a merry dance.
With Gervinho flying along the right flank like Petkovic had hoped Candreva would, and Ljajic switching positions with Totti, Roma had a genuine three-man attacking threat which had already stretched Lazio to breaking point before Andre Dias was given a red card for a last-man block on Totti, having only been on the pitch for three minutes.
There had been a couple of opportunities for Lazio to find an equaliser, but having conserved their energy in the first period the Roma midfield, and De Rossi in particular, made some timely challenges inside their own area to deny any comeback.
Ljajic converted a penalty himself after being brought down by Ledesma, adding further gloss to a performance that had put brain before brawn.
It had been a two-and-half year wait since Roma’s last win over Lazio, but for Napoli their last success at the San Siro against Milan came back in 1986.
Ahead of the game Benitez also exercised a more relaxed approach to last season’s runners-up (who’d been used to the highly-strung Walter Mazzarri in charge for the last four years), handing his players a day off 24 hours before they left for the north. Marek Hamsik used the free time to get another tattoo, while Pepe Reina went for a stroll along the seafront near his new home.
Higuain has netted four times in five appearances this season
Napoli must have felt even more at home when they left their hotel near the San Siro, after being mobbed by the hundreds of Azzurri fans who’d either made the trip or were already living in Milan.
However, they were straight down to business once they took to the pitch. Unlike Roma, Napoli went on the attack from the first whistle and were rewarded by Miguel Angel Britos’ goal after just six minutes.
The same tactic was employed at the start of the second half, and this time it was the impressive Gonzalo Higuain who found the net on 52 minutes. From there it looked like plain sailing as Mario Balotelli missed a penalty for the first time in his career (at the 22nd attempt), denied by Reina’s fine save.
Balotelli netted a consolation with a curled injury-time effort, but by then the damage had already been done.
In the pressure-cooker environment of Italian football, local coaches are taught never to let their players drop their guard. But Garcia and Benitez have demonstrated that a relaxed approach can pay dividends.