It is a fixture that for the past three years has been a clash of the top two sides in Italy. The game which had a direct impact on the destination of the title. Of course, it can only be Roma versus Inter. These two teams have been the main protagonists since the 2005/06 season, where they have finished in the top two every year. However, judging by the Giallorossi’s start to Serie A this season, their duopoly is looking under threat.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t make the forthcoming match between the two sides any less important. They are both competing to finish in the top four this year – though the capital club’s chances are becoming slimmer with every point dropped. Luciano Spalletti will therefore be viewing this game as a great opportunity to get his side back on track, pegging back one of the front-runners in the process too.
The Roma tactician is unlikely to spring any surprises in formation. The 4-2-3-1 that has served him so well in the past will be on view once more. However, injuries and suspensions have left Spalletti with some major problems, notably in defence. Christian Panucci and Philippe Mexes are both suspended for the encounter – the latter as a result of a silly second booking for dissent against Siena. The return of Mexes has coincided with an upturn in performances and results and his absence from the game will be sorely felt, as will his 35-year-old centre-back partner. It leaves the Tuscan coach with a shortage of options in the centre of defence.
The situation looks brighter as you move further forward. Daniele De Rossi will take one of the spots in front of the back four and will also captain the side. With David Pizarro still injured, he is likely to be partnered by Alberto Aquilani. The young Italian international has a key role to play in Spalletti’s system. He acts as Roma’s version of Andrea Pirlo, collecting the ball from the defence and creating from deep. He’s been used behind the main striker in the centre of an attacking three many times this season, but the player himself has previously stated he prefers to play the deeper role. He should now get his chance to shine in an important game.
Going forward is where Roma excel. However, the sales of Amantino Mancini and Ludovic Giuly plus the loaning of Mauro Esposito in the summer has seen the Giallorossi shorn of the width that has been so fundamental to their attacking play in recent years. Rodrigo Taddei is the only member of the squad who is a natural wide player and will start on the right hand side. Jérémy Menez is the strong favourite to fill the left wing berth. The Frenchman is not a natural wide player though – not in the same vein as a Mancini or Giuly.
In previous years, the two wide players would hug the touchline, creating space in the centre for Totti to drop into. This would leave Simone Perrotta, whose return from injury means he will fill the spot in the centre of the attacking three on Sunday, an opportunity to run beyond him into the gap he created. However, Menez likes to roam inside, staying out wide is not something he is totally comfortable with, and as such the space in the centre is not as open as it once was.
The injury to Totti, the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, is also a major loss to the team. He is so important to how Spalletti wants his side to play. There’s no other player in the squad who is capable of finding the gaps and creating the space as well as he can. Mirko Vucinic or summer signing Julio Baptista will take his place, but neither is as good as the 58-cap Italy man. Baptista is the option closest to Totti in that he is not a natural striker and will be more inclined to drop deep and create spaces for others.
Inter boss Jose Mourinho is likely to send his troops out in his favoured 4-3-3, as he has done for every away game so far this campaign. Predicting the formation is one thing, but predicting which players will fill that formation, however, is altogether more difficult. It’s this element of the unknown that could work in the Portuguese tactician’s favour. Such is the depth of the Inter squad – there are two players for every position, each of which could play on Sunday.
The defence is one area where Mourinho has to date shown a degree of consistency in his selections. Julio Cesar, Maicon and Ivan Cordoba are all certain starters if fit. The remaining two spots of the back four will depend on fitness and the Coach’s preference. Marco Materazzi seems to have been the preferred choice to partner Cordoba, but he limped off in the Champions League match against Werder Bremen with a calf problem, meaning his spot will probably go to Nicolas Burdisso if he cannot regain fitness in time. Maxwell or Cristian Chivu will slot in at left-back.
Midfield and attack is a lot harder to predict. The three central midfielders always contain a blend of power, defensive solidity and an attacking threat. Mourinho was desperate to sign Frank Lampard in the summer, and a closer examination of the central midfielders at his disposal highlights why. Not one member of the group is a genuine goal scoring threat. In fact, there’s only really Dejan Stankovic that offers any sort of creativity. He has been used in a slightly deeper role by Mourinho so far, acting as a deep-lying playmaker. President Massimo Moratti moved for Sulley Muntari when he realised Lampard wouldn’t be leaving. However, going forward he is not the same type of player as the England international. He doesn’t score anywhere near as many goals as the Chelsea man and he doesn’t offer the sort of guile and vision that Stankovic does.
This places a lot more emphasis on the front three to perform well. “The Special One” made a point of buying two new wingers in the summer to slot into his favoured system. Just like his time at Chelsea, he will instruct them to stay wide and feed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the focal point of the front three. This will create space for one of the three central midfielders to burst forward and provide support to the Swede. This is likely to be assigned to Muntari. Patrick Vieira will provide the defensive solidity and power. The last place would normally go to Esteban Cambiasso, but the Argentine will have only returned from international duty in South America a few days beforehand and it will be touch and go as to whether he is deemed to be in good enough condition to start. If not, Stankovic may come in and offer further creativity to the Nerazzurri.
On the face of things, it appears Spalletti is going to have a difficult time winning this game. A quick glance at his record at the Stadio Olimpico as Roma boss makes both pleasing and depressing reading. In the past two seasons he has lost a grand total of three home games, not bad then. The depressing bit? Two of those losses have been to La Beneamata. In fact, since he took over the Roman outfit, he has never managed to beat Inter in the league in front of his own crowd. In three games, his team have mustered just the one point from a possible nine that have been contested in the Eternal City.
So what is it about Inter that Spalletti finds so difficult to deal with? It’s tough to give a definitive answer. Inter do seem to be one of the few teams who are able to nullify Roma’s system and attacking threat, primarily because of the usual deployment of two defensively minded midfield players that patrol the centre of pitch. It is hard to see this changing under Mourinho – a coach who places great importance on correct defending and clean sheets. Even if Roma were to take the lead, there is always that feeling that the ex-Porto coach has a trick or two up his sleeve with regards substitutions.
We witnessed a classic example of this against Lecce. With his men struggling to break down the visitor’s 4-5-1 set-up he sent on Julio Cruz for Cristian Chivu. With his side already in a 4-4-2 after two half-time substitutions, this left them with three strikers on the field alongside Ricardo Quaresma and Mancini. Naturally, they won the game 1-0 with a goal from the Argentine replacement. Of course, it helps when you have that wealth of options available, but the way the two-time UEFA Manager of the Year uses them will earn his side many a point this season. As such, it makes forecasting a Roma victory very tough indeed.