The season's final Derby della Capitale may lack the luster of a title chase or the finality of a silverware showdown, but when the sects of Rome square off, intrigue is never in short supply. In the 174th version of this derby, newly reinstated Eddy Reja and Lazio play host to Rudi Garcia's second place Roma squad. With three victories and two draws in his five league matches back at the helm, Lazio are only four points adrift of Europa League qualification, so don't let their ninth place standing fool you, beyond mere blood lust, they have much to play for on Sunday.
Sitting nine points back of first place Juventus and with a game-in-hand, Roma won't be lacking in motivation either. As much as Garcia must game plan for Reja's latest maneuvers, Roma's toughest foe on Sunday may be the calendar. Only four days removed from an intense and hard fought victory over Napoli, and with an uncertain replay against Parma still lingering, not to mention Wednesday's return leg in the Coppa Italia semi-finals, Garcia must dole out the minutes judiciously in this match.
Before we dissect that matter further, a look back:
September 22, 2013: Roma 2, Lazio 0
We may have forgotten it now, what with all the winning streaks and triumphs Roma has enjoyed this year, but heading into the season's first derby, the red side of Rome was awash in tears, suffering a string of defeats at the loathsome hands of Lazio, the most painful of which still bore fresh scars. All that changed in an instant, tears of sadness were suddenly tinged with elation, Roma had finally chased the eagle off its perch.
Given how emotional his celebration was, it's only appropriate that these highlights are sepia tone, after all, could there possibly be bigger and better stage on which to score his first Roman goal than the derby? Federico Balzaretti's goal was as important as it was emotional, breaking a scoreless deadlock in the 63rd minute. While this goal will ultimately--and rightfully--be remembered for the celebration that followed, it does undersell the beauty of it, does it not? Balzaretti's left footed volley was nearly flawless; he held his ground, waited for the ball to drop to the perfect height, planted his right leg firmly in the ground, and drove his left foot through the ball, slamming it past Federico Marchetti. The perfect combination of man, mechanics and moment.
Adem Ljajic's 90th minute penalty put the official end to this match, breaking Lazio's recent run of derby successes and pushing Roma's winning streak one week further.
Lazio II: The Return of Reja
The reinstatement of Eddy Reja was bound to be a big story; after all, he led Lazio to consecutive Europa League appearances and seemed to provide some stability in the Post-Delio Rossi world, but one can only coast on past achievements for so long. Fortunately for Lazio, this reunion has had legs, as Reja's subtle re-tooling of Lazio has led to 11 of a possible 15 points.
With Hernanes off to Inter and Miroslav Klose finally showing some signs of decline, it should come as no surprise that Reja's Lazio renaissance has been borne on the backs of defense. Though the sample sizes are drastically different, in Reja's five matches on the sideline, Lazio has conceded only 0.42 goals per match, highlighted by three cleansheets in five. Beyond blanking Bologna, Reja's men have thrown up some pretty stout numbers against impressive competition, shutting out Inter and playing Juve to a 1-1 draw; generally speaking, their defensive averages are up across their past handful of matches.
However, when it comes to the fun side of the game, Lazio's numbers are actually slightly depressed since Reja's return. Of course, when you only manage two shots on goal against a club as decidedly poor as Bologna, you have to expect some regression. On the balance of the season, Lazio's 29 goals scored puts them smack in the middle of Serie A, three behind Parma and three ahead of Sampdoria.
Making matter worse for Lazio, their usual bellwether, Klose, has only scored five times this season, only one of which has come in 2014. In the buildup to the last match, we heralded Klose for his remarkable efficiency--particularly in the face of his underutilization in the Lazio offense--and given how inefficient Lazio has been on the whole, let's hope the irony isn't lost on them. Lazio's 223 chances created and their 43% shooting accuracy are sixth and fifth in the league, respectively, yet they've only managed 29 goals; which is, again, 10th in the league. So, while the deeper statistics suggest Lazio should be more prolific, they simply haven't capitalized on their chances this season. It could be luck, it could be poor timing, but the fact of the matter is, their goal numbers haven't been commensurate with what has otherwise been a pretty efficient attack.
This is certainly something to keep an eye on; you never know when the numbers may even out, or when their luck might simply swing the other way.
Roma: Rained Out & Rested
In the wake of last week's washout against Parma, tomorrow's contest will be Roma's first league match since January 26th, which doesn't mean too much, but it's the Coppa Italia schedule on the bookend of those league matches that should have you concerned. Wednesday's 3-2 victory over Napoli was exciting and put Roma on a good foot heading into the second leg, but it also put 90 minutes on the legs of Gervinho and an additional hour on Francesco Totti's feet. With the return fixture set for the 12th of this month, this is no small worry, especially when you consider that numbers 10 and 27 are Roma's most potent attacking options of late.
Honestly, that's the long and short of it. We've discussed it so much over the past ten days or so, but it bears repeating, Roma's chances of success from now through May, both in the league and cup, depend largely on Garcia's management skills. Can he find the right combination of midfield minutes between Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic, Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan? Can he keep Mattia Destro in the mix? Does he risk ruining Gervinho's groove by resting him?
Heading into January, we questioned how Rudi Garcia would manage his second swing through the fixture list. With the element of surprised removed from the equation, would he be as effective, could he make the necessary adjustments, and would he have the temerity to make the tough choices?
Well, as we move our way through winter, that last question will reign supreme. In order to lead Roma on its duel quest, a time will come when Garcia has to make a controversial call; does he trust his reserves to play under pressure and possibly out of position, can he forfeit the sure thing to ensure some added stamina in May? Can he see the forest for the trees?
These are important questions under any circumstance, let alone when you're facing your fiercest rivals for the 174th time.