Lazio hope more continuity, less drama prove advantages vs. Roma in derby
Lazio's inscrutable general manager, Igli Tare, rated last season a seven out of 10. It was a year of "ups and downs." The club finished eighth, missing out on the Champions League places by 10 points, while key difference-makers Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Luis Alberto and Ciro Immobile all struggled to hit the heights of the previous year.
Yet Lazio fans still headed into the summer with two memories to savour. They won another Coppa Italia to make them the most successful Italian team, after Juventus, of the past eight years. Secondly, and every bit as satisfying for supporters, was the pain they inflicted on rivals Roma in March, whom they face on Sunday at 12 pm ET on ESPN 2/ESPN 3.
On that March day an Immobile-led Lazio ran riot in a 3-0 win, a result that marked Lazio's biggest victory in the Derby della Capitale since 2006 and pushed then-Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco to the brink of losing his job.
Four days after that derby, Di Francesco was sacked after Roma were eliminated from the Champions League, with sporting director Monchi following him out the door. Not even a year had passed since their finest hour, the night known as the Romantada, when the Giallorossi came back from a three-goal deficit to knock out Barcelona and reach the Champions League semifinals. A reckoning had been coming, though, and the fallout from the last derby continues to be felt.
Last week Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi complained that "no one ever talks about us." He feels his team is constantly overlooked and underestimated. The coverage they get in the city is limited and Lazio's social media machinery pales in comparison to the entertainment production company that is Roma Twitter.
When the glare of the media does fall on them, it's usually for ugly, non-football related issues. The only time Lazio stole the headlines this summer was nothing to do with the team. That front-page news involved the leader of the club's ultras being executed by a hitman disguised as a jogger in an apparent settling of scores in the Rome underworld.
When it comes to the football, Inzaghi must appreciate (and take delight in) that even by Roma standards the last six months have brought relentless drama. Roma chose not to extend Romanista and club legend Daniele De Rossi's contract as a player, while La Repubblica published a jaw-dropping expose into last season. The club insisted some of this expose was "clearly not correct," but admitted other parts were in fact true.
Then there was the Francesco Totti saga.
He resigned from his role within the club's management team on June 17 and promptly held a 90-minute news conference, firing off more shots than when he won the European Golden Boot in 2007. It led to a club statement "regarding the repeated references to a possible comeback with a new ownership," to which Roma countered: "We hope that this was not meant to be an inappropriate anticipation of a takeover attempt of the club, a scenario that would be very sensitive as Roma is a listed company."
In just over a month, Roma had managed to cast away two club legends and two of its very own.
In order to shift attention onto themselves, Lazio would have had to sign Neymar. Instead, as Roma changed everything, Lazio more or less stayed the same.
Only one Serie A coach, SPAL's Leonardo Semplici, has been in his job longer than Inzaghi, who begins his fourth season in charge of the Biancocelesti. Shortlisted for the Juventus job, Inzaghi remained in Rome as did Tare. Milan moved heaven and earth to persuade Tare to replace Leonardo as the club's sporting director but the Albanian did not budge. One of the shrewdest operators out there, he instead focused on making the one or two signings that Lazio really need in order to break into the top four. His biggest signing, the €11 million acquisition of SPAL wing-back Manuel Lazzarri, immediately felt like a candidate for best bargain buy of the summer.
Surprisingly, Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto are also back for another year. The Serb was expected to leave for more than €100m last summer and received Serie A's best midfielder award despite not living up to the hype. Fully aware of what the duo can do, Inzaghi smiles the smile of someone who can't believe his luck that both players are still around.
The continuity at Lazio contrasts with the complete overhaul at Roma. It's a tabula rasa. They have a new sporting director, a new coach, a new goalkeeper, new full-backs, new centre-backs, new midfielders and, in all likelihood, a new striker by the time the window shuts on Monday. That's the scale of the clean-up operation after Monchi's exit.
When the Spaniard walked away in March, he left a mess that burdened Roma with expensive players they didn't need and some bad contracts. You think of the €42m invested in Patrik Schick and the five-year deal worth €3.5m a season (net) awarded to 29-year-old Javier Pastore, neither of whom ever fit Eusebio Di Francesco's scheme. To paraphrase Rafa Benitez, Monchi bought a couple of lamps when his coach had asked for a sofa. Even the positive acquisitions of Nicolo Zaniolo, Aleksandar Kolarov and Cengiz Under are not enough to save face.
If Roma still have two or three things to do over the next week, it's because of the size of the mess new sporting director Gianluca Petrachi inherited. All of their signings, apart from goalkeeper Pau Lopez, have Serie A experience and know the league inside-out. Petrachi vowed at his unveiling that Roma won't be buying players with "full stomachs or those who think only about the God of money."
Roma have tied Zaniolo, the winner of last season's best young player award, down to a new contract and, surprisingly, managed to get Edin Dzeko to extend too. Booed as he left the pitch in Roma's final game of last season after word had spread of talks to join Inter, the Nerazzurri's unwillingness to meet Roma's asking price this summer has resulted in the Bosnian re-upping in Rome on very good terms for a player his age.
The most intriguing piece of business Roma did though has to be the appointment of Paulo Fonseca as manager. Seven clubs made coaching changes in Serie A this summer but "Zorro," who arrives from Shakhtar Donetsk, is the only one new to the league. The charismatic Portuguese will need time but his ideas and approach are cause for genuine excitement.
Electric going forward against Genoa in Sunday's 3-3 draw, there was a fluidity and verve to Roma that we haven't seen since the days of Luciano Spalletti. In contrast, covering the space behind a high line defensively and reacting to the switches that come when you narrow the pitch and push forward so many players still needs work. Signing a quick and experienced centre-back to replace Kostas Manolas remains a priority and one the club has been working on all summer. Juan Jesus was an accident that happened at the weekend, effectively inviting Genoa into a game they'd simply stood and watched for the first 15 minutes.
Expect Lazio to be utterly ruthless. Unlike Fonseca, Inzaghi has known his best XI since the very first day of preseason. He's had time to work with his players all summer and of the new recruits, Lazzari is such a perfect fit he seemingly needs no time to integrate.
Lazio scored 59 goals in preseason and turned in the performance of Matchday 1 in a 3-0 win at Sampdoria. Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto look back to their very best and you have to say: at the moment the Biancocelesti (and Atalanta) look the readiest to compete for fourth spot. In derby lore, that means Roma will probably win on Sunday.
A game of this magnitude is coming early, perhaps too early for Fonseca. Roma, for now, feel less complete than their rivals but it is a big opportunity for Fonseca to make a name for himself in the capital.
Roma and Lazio each scored three goals last weekend so what awaits us could be the most entertaining Derby della Capitale in a long time.