Any derby match in Italy is a spectacular event. From a Spezia-Carrarese derby in lowly Lega Pro, to the Derby della Madonnina in Milano, fireworks are guaranteed. But for tension, drama, colour and passion, none can rival the Derby della Capitale, and Sunday’s gladiatorial battle between Roma and Lazio will be no different.
It’s easy to build up the significance of Derby games, yet this one has big connotations for both the capitals sides. But to talk of a derby, first you must look at the history. Both in the past and in more recent times, it’s Roma who hold the upper hand in derby games. In 154 competitive games, the Giallorossi have won 57 times to Lazio’s 40, whilst also winning five of the previous six derbies. But in derby matches it’s the most recent one that matters, and Lazio were the victors of Octobers clash when Miroslav Klose’s stoppage time finish sent Laziali wild to take a 3-2 win. It was also Edy Reja’s first derby win in his five attempts. His celebrations at the end of the game have gone down in folklore. So happy was the tactician he even tried to hug Olimpia the Eagle, the mascot who flies around the stadium pre-game. Fortunately for Reja’s face, the birds handler kept the coach at arms length.
The pressure on Lazio coach Reja going into the last derby was immense. Barracked by the Curva Nord for parts of the season, the release of tension at the end of the game spoke volumes. Yet somehow, the pressure heading into Sunday’s battle will be even higher after a bizarre couple of weeks within the Biancocelesti camp. After a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Palermo, Reja reportedly handed in his resignation allegedly due to a strained relationship with president Lotito and Sporting Director Tare just hours before flying to Madrid for the second leg of their Europa League tie with Atletico. He withdrew it after discussions (despite President Lotito allegedly sounding out Lippi, Zola and Del Neri in-between discussions.)
Last Sunday’s nights win over Fiorentina has allowed some breathing space heading into the derby, and if Reja’s post-match comments are anything to go by, his side will be more than ready to meet Roma. He told journalists: ‘I want 11 lions on the field against Roma. Technically and tactically we must create perfection.’ Asked about his off-field issues, he stated: ‘It’s not a matter of my contract but of trust. I’ve had moments where I’ve suffered this year, but the president has always shown affection towards me. I care about this team, the club and these colours. It was wrong of me to try and quit my role the way I did.’ Aside from all the distractions, Lazio are actually having a good season, sitting in 3rd place. Victory over their deadliest rivals to complete a derby double would make that good season a great one.
Reja will be relieved to be facing a Roma side a shadow of themselves in recent years, although it’s accepted they’re a side in transition since Thomas Di Benedetto bought the club. Gone are the days of swashbuckling football under Luciano Spalletti and the battling tendancies of Claudio Ranieri’s side. In it’s place is a patient, cultured side with frightening inconsistency that is costing them a Champions League push. Sometimes brilliant (hammering Inter 4-0) to painfully awful (Sunday’s abysmal and in-disciplined 4-1 beating at the hands of Atalanta,) it’s impossible to predict which Giallorossi will turn up. Under the watchful eye of coach Luis Enrique, the Ultra who gather in the Curva Sud have been remarkably patient by Italian standards. Defeat to their deadly rivals for a second time this season (Roma haven’t lost two league derbies in a row since the 1997-98 season) and the heat could be cranked up on the Spaniard.
In the modern day colosseum of Rome the two coaches represent very different gladiators. Luis Enrique is the new kid on the block, calm and composed but in-experienced. In time he could become one of the best, but he must quickly learn from his mistakes or will face the dreaded thumbs down from his Caeser, Di Benedetto.
Reja would be the embattled fighter. He’s been around too long and seen too much to ever be surprised, although the new threat from Roma perhaps represents his biggest challenge to date. Cautious when attacking, he has all the tools at his disposal to challenge the best, but time isn’t on his side. Victory in the arena against his new foe could extend his spell in the limelight for a little longer.
So who will win this particular stand-off, the wolves or the eagles? History suggests Roma, but the present says Lazio. One thing for certain is that it will be a colossal event marked with spectacular choreography on each Curva and passion on the pitch.