One of the most entertaining fixtures on the Serie A calendar, Week 15 will see title favourites Inter in the capital facing Rome’s oldest football club Lazio.
Early season form suggested the Biancocelesti were ready to make the 2008/09 Scudetto challenge more than a one horse race as Jose Mourinho’s holders were – for the third year running – made clear favourites for the crown. Going about his business quietly, Coach Delio Rossi has assembled a Lazio side that once more looked capable of challenging for honours as the squad of 2000 had done. The promise shown in the opening weeks was undermined by one question though – the ability to last the distance, and it appears now the demands of winning a Scudetto are catching up on this talented, yet thin-on-the-ground line up.
So as Saturday evening draws near we take a look at where some of the key duels of the match will take place and quite possibly determine the outcome of this thrilling encounter.
Jose Mourinho vs. Delio Rossi
Two coaches, two very different approaches and yet still both under different mediums of pressure. For Mourinho, it is a case of winning over the fans – a few too many uninspiring performances have so far failed to impress the tifosi. The Portuguese Tactician may have (rather predictably) got Inter leading the pack and on course to claim a fourth successive Scudetto, but he appears to be ill at ease with some of his players, most notably summer signing Ricardo Quaresma, youngster Mario Balotelli and Adriano. Although there is no doubt the ‘Special One’ will deliver some kind of silverware this season, the Nerazzurri faithful are proving just as hard to win. For Delio Rossi, his pressures have come off the back of his own successes. The explosive start to the campaign was inevitably going to be followed by a downturn of form and it appears the manor and timing of the slump is proving hardest to swallow. The derby day defeat to a struggling Roma side was the catalyst for a run of not-too-impressive performances but its far from a crisis. Fifth place and ten points off the top, plus a Coppa Italia victory away at Milan, many a Lazio fan would have taken the current scenario at the start of the season. However, Rossi must now live by the high expectations brought about by his early-season accomplishments and try to avoid becoming a victim of his own success – the nightmare of many a Coach.
Walter Samuel vs. Mauro Zarate
Walter Samuel was one of the key components of Fabio Capello’s Scudetto-winning Roma side back in 2001 as his strong defensive capabilities earned him a reputation as one of the best defender’s in Serie A. Nicknamed ‘The Wall’ for his opponents inability to get past him, the Argentinean will be desperate to stop fellow countryman Mauro Zarate. A lengthy lay off due to a serious cruciate ligament injury means the stopper could still lack physical and mental sharpness, but those doubts will need to be cast aside to focus on the job in hand. Lazio, in livewire Zarate, have a promising young striker whose ability was first highlighted just over a year ago in a stint with then English premiership side Birmingham City. Good feet, a confident finisher and a somewhat dead ball specialist, the summer loan move (with option to buy) to the Eternal City appears not to have phased the ‘Zarate Kid.’ Seven goals in 13 games proves that despite a recent lack of goals, the young South American has a knack of grabbing them – and Samuel will need all his experience to ensure he limits any opportunities afforded to the striker.
Sully Muntari vs. Christian Ledesma
Ghanaian powerhouse Muntari is well known to his Serie A opponents after spending five years of his career dictating the Udinese midfield. Such impressive performances mixing bite with flair and technique on the South Coast of England in a single season with Premier League side Portsmouth prompted Jose Mourinho to snap him up as a combatant alongside the oft-injured pairing of Esteban Cambiasso and Patrick Vieira. Like his opponent in this weekend’s duel Christian Ledesma, Muntari is an energetic force of excellent vision and technical ability with a hammer of a shot that produces the occasional long-range screamer. Ledesma holds a more creative role for his side with Christian Brocchi installed as the defensive shield whist Muntari will be operating slightly deeper due to his naturally aggressive edge and Patrick Vieira’s absence. This is a battle that will be determined by who can come out on top in a midfield plethora of technique, creativity and tenacity.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. David Rozehnal
On paper this looks worryingly one-sided and in past days, the proof that “on paper” means exactly that wouldn’t necessarily have been demonstrated by an inconsistent Ibrahimovic. Genius or goof, the mercurial Swede is finally losing the frustratingly unpredictable side to his form and the arrogance that had tarnished his world-class ability. The 27-year-old is finally producing wondrous displays week in, week out.
Strong, deceptively quick, blessed with the feet of a ballerina and power of a wrestler, Czech stopper Rozehnal will know exactly what he’s up against this time around. The new, consistent and hardworking Zlatan will make a hard job even harder. Lazio has struggled since the derby defeat to Roma and although last weekend’s defensive shocker and defeat to Atalanta will have been masked by their midweek Coppa Italia triumph against Milan, Rozehnal must ensure he leads his back line astutely. Whilst dropping a yard off Ibra to avoid losing him on the turn, what the defender lacks in pace against the Swede he must compensate for in allowing him little time to work any of his magic. Which of course will be a lot easier said than done, and it appears that in this form the only person who can halt Ibra, will be himself.