Roman mythology says that Romulus slew twin brother Remus in a dispute over who should rule the newly founded city of Rome. Both brothers laid claim to the throne having co-founded the city circa 753-752BC, but in the end Romulus was triumphant and the Eternal City has born his name ever since.
Fiorentina cross swords with Roma this coming weekend in the capital, and the arguments behind the scenes are already aflutter. The two teams share a common identity – for years, they have been the only ones to offer a consistent challenge to the steamroller trinity of Juventus, Milan and Inter. Both teams have had to make do with humbler financial resources, both have fostered wonderful young talents, and, to differing degrees, both have offered fast-paced, beautiful football.
For these reasons a discussion of tactics and players can only scratch the surface of what this match will mean to any connoisseur of Italian football. The similarities between the two teams have bred a potent rivalry between them, a sour rather than amicable one since their overlapping mercato range has led them to interfere with each other on more than one occasion – Fiorentina hoped to snatch Roma’s youth product Alberto Aquilani years before Juventus started hounding the player, and last summer’s feud, when Roma tried raiding Viola for star striker Adrian Mutu, left both parties feeling cheated and resentful. Outside of geography, there is little to keep us from calling this game a derby.
In the ranks of derbies, though, that of this year is a slightly impoverished one. Fiorentina’s early dreams about competing for the Scudetto have clashed with the harsh reality of their limited depth on the bench, a deficiency which proved costly when dealing with the onerous demands of championship and Champions League simultaneously. Their game has also been short of its old lustre, relying more on the inventions of individual players (such as striker Alberto Gilardino, practically reborn since donning the purple shirt) than on authentically convincing team play.
As for Roma, words cannot do justice to the blackness of the crisis into which they plunged at the beginning of this campaign. A team seemingly set to do battle for the Scudetto alongside Inter and Juventus found itself gasping for air in the relegation zone, all the while being humiliated by minnows such as Bologna in Italy and Cluj in Europe. Some encouraging results have recently given room for hope – the victory against Lazio in the derby and last Sunday’s 3-0 over Lecce – but even then, and just like Fiorentina, Roma has left more questions than answers in terms of how their team should envision the game.
Roma is likely to start off with a more aggressive game, if only because they are the home team, but both sides can be expected to play cautious football. Going into the half-time break with a lead may prove crucial, so the teams will be careful not to concede. Roma may draw some confidence from the fact that their defence is, for the first time in what seems like eons, almost fully fit, with Philippe Mexes and Juan guarding the centre and a wealth of wingbacks offering offensive and defensive options on their flanks. To the delight of the Romans, the Fiorentina attack could be a bit shaky too – Mutu’s strong performance against Udinese belies his erratic stretch of form this year, and the Viola may once again end up relying too much and too often on the opportunistic intuitions of Gilardino (concessions made for the unpredictable nature of brilliant but still ripening Stevan Jovetic).
At the other end of the pitch, Roma has all the quality to burn a hole in the nets guarded by French goalkeeper Sebastien Frey (arguably the greatest asset in a defence otherwise coming somewhat short of excelling). The question is whether this quality will be adequately supported by the midfield. The trio composed by Francesco Totti, Mirko Vucinic and Julio Baptista provides an arresting combination of technique, speed and power, but all too often in the last few matches they have seemed to operate as an isolated unit, disconnected from the dynamisms of a team which failed to sustain them. Only the last game against Lecce saw something like a return of a cohesive team (and a captain – Totti is back to scoring goals, and his growing confidence is a factor which Fiorentina cannot underestimate).
Of course the answer to this quandary will depend on the central part of the pitch, but the formation that Roma Coach Luciano Spalletti will deploy on Sunday is as great a mystery as Stonehenge. The diamond-shaped midfield has served him well recently, but he has already announced his plans to go back to the 4-2-3-1 as soon as his players are fit (which they now are). Regardless of that question, Roma has three extremely valid options for one offensive spot in the names of Baptista, Aquilani and David Pizarro. Choosing which one to field will be difficult and may prove critical. Simone Perrotta or Rodrigo Taddei may be dropped at the back to make space for one of the above, while the newly exploded revelation Matteo Brighi and the rocky Daniele De Rossi are certain starters.
For their own part, Fiorentina suffer less migraines over questions of tactics but greater uncertainties in terms of individual performances. Felipe Melo is doing very well and should be kept an eye on by the Roman defence, Franco Semioli is no Superman and may find some trouble faced with Roma’s bulldogs on the wing, but the real query is of course Riccardo Montolivo (nicknamed Pazzolivo, meaning ‘crazy’). The young midfielder is an infuriatingly inconsistent talent, seemingly a spectre when fielded against Greece for the Azzurri team a week ago, then tearing to pieces Udinese with two goals and an all-round splendid performance four days later. It will be his game, and that of equally variable players like Mutu, Jovetic or Juan Manuel Vargas, which will most likely make or break the match for Fiorentina.
Both teams are riding on the wave of some encouraging results, so much so there is an almost elegant sadness in that one of them (or both, in case of a draw) should see this run interrupted. Roma are the close favourites (by virtue of playing at home more than by technical merits), and they may take solace from looking at their proud history. But this weekend it’s going to be a tough visitor to beat if they want to avoid the irony of playing the part of Remus.