Roma have won the derby of the capital and arrogantly reclaimed their right to the Scudetto. It was meant to be an epic match, and an epic match it was. The real winner out of this battle is no doubt Claudio Ranieri, who took the crown as the emperor of Rome and the year’s best Coach by a mile. However it ends, this has been Roma’s best season in the last ten years in every way that matters.
In our preview to the game, we said that winning the match meant winning the battle for the midfield. That battle was being won by the Biancocelesti. Roma’s midfielders were very close together and Lazio were allowed to take control of the wings, while the trident of the Giallorossi was too detached from the rest of the team and often seemed to operate without support. As was the case the first time against Bari, the trio of Francesco Totti, Mirko Vucinic and Luca Toni showed flashes of great skill, but they did not produce a consistent performance. The team went into the changing rooms with a 1-0 score for Lazio, and it was apparent that change was needed. Television commentators were speculating on the possibility of bringing Jérémy Menez on for Vucinic or Rodrigo Taddei for Simone Perrotta, but that seemed redundant. The problem with Roma was that their hybrid striker-midfielder players (Totti, Vucinic) were failing to connect with the rear, and simply adding fresh legs to the same formula was not going to change that.
Seeing the team going back onto the field without Daniele De Rossi and Totti was the last thing that anyone was prepared for, including this writer, or for that matter Edy Reja, who had until then played the game of a true veteran. Reja had to take down a colossus, and he knew how to do that. It was very deftly done. In the second half, Ranieri saw the need to revolutionise the team and he went for the bravest possible option. De Rossi was taken off, Perrotta went back on the mediana next to David Pizarro and Rodrigo Taddei took up his spot on the wing, while Totti was replaced on the trequarti by Menez. The presence of Taddei on the right wing dissolved some of Roma’s tactical rigidity, effectively broadening the lateral range of the team and incrementing their overall speed. With Taddei and Perrotta working together, as well as Menez providing runs, the Giallorossi now possessed all the stamina and positional coverage required to take back the midfield, and this they did. But for the presence of a traditional striker upfront, it was closer to Luciano Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1.
In the first twenty minutes of the second half, just about everything that could happen happened. The tactical match became a battle, Lazio were given a penalty and failed, Roma were returned the favour and succeeded, sparks of tension flew between the players, yellow cards flowered everywhere, Tommaso Rocchi produced a run on the lines of Maradona and was stopped by Perrotta at the last second, Vucinic took the lead by means of a free kick, and the entire Stadio Olimpico seemed about to deflagrate until the Giallorossi decided to manage their advantage and slow the game down a little. And all of it goes back to those two changes made by the Roma Coach over the break.
The wisdom of Ranieri’s substitutions cannot be overstated. Totti and De Rossi were both booked and nervous, and they were candidates for a red card (which ended up going to Cristian Ledesma instead). Sometimes passion is not a good thing. Taddei earned Roma their penalty, and Menez the free kick which turned into a goal. Harder than producing excellence is correcting an error into excellence, and Ranieri did just that. He is our man of the match, our man of the day, our man of the season.
It is remarkable that when Reja attempted his own turnover, bringing Mauro Zarate on for Lichsteiner, it failed to produce much in the way of change. Lichsteiner had been causing Roma no end of trouble on the right, and, in fairness, Zarate turned out to be no less of a nightmare on that position for John Arne Riise, but the two Laziali essentially played in the same role. Though Zarate’s freshness gave him an edge on the one-on-one duels, it did not serve to change Lazio’s tactical situation. Roma now had control of the midfield, and this, in turn, gave them lucidity and organization in the defence. Whenever the Biancocelesti stepped forwards, Roma had the time and the means to close themselves like a hedgehog. Lazio’s great huffing and puffing upfront seldom achieved as much as a shot on goal. Towards the end, it was enough for Ranieri to introduce Matteo Brighi for Vucinic, adding further muscle to the midfield and supporting Riise with Zarate, to effectively close all of Lazio’s remaining air conducts.
Though the score and performance of the two teams belied the huge gap in points between them, these substitutions do an excellent job at illustrating why Roma really are the best team in Serie A alongside Inter. Ranieri’s options on the bench provide more than very good individuals; they represent a range of excellent players in a wealth of roles and positions on the pitch. It is the difference between having substitutes and having alternatives. When Ranieri picks from his pool, he can shape (or re-shape) the team into virtually anything he likes. It is an incredible asset that the team possesses, and it should be a clear message to management that things must be kept the way they are. Menez, for instance, is incredibly useful, whether starting or coming off the bench, and everything must be done to ensure he stays. One might even argue that Julio Baptista, as fifth striker, and for at least another year until Stefano Okaka matures, represents excellent value. A team with Totti, Vucinic, Toni, Menez and Baptista in their offensive department is a team with an endless array of solutions to breach the adversary net.
As for the individual performances, there was much brilliance and much chaos. Discussing all of the men is well beyond our space, but we must signal, at the very least, the penalty saved by Julio Sergio, the fight and resistance of Perrotta, and, why not, the excellent refereeing of the game by Paolo Tagliavento. The man has now handled all the toughest derbies in Italy, including Catania-Palermo and Genoa-Sampdoria, and he did a wonderful job of keeping the game and the spirits level by a diligent use of the yellow cards. Some of his decisions may have been slightly off focus, but that went both ways, from the generous penalty in favour of Lazio to the clement yellow card for De Rossi’s brute sliding tackle. Tagliavento demonstrated good judgment and nerves of steel, and has been doing so all season. Perhaps we should welcome the heir to Pierluigi Collina.