For pessimists and optimists alike, today's derby was about what you expected. Roma played miserably, Rudi Garcia made some questionable substitutions which ultimately worked out, Roma then played less miserably and were ultimately delivered three points due to equal parts luck and officiating oversight. Nothing with this team is ever easy, so with €50m riding on the line, I'm not sure we should have expected anything less than a nail biter.
With so much at stake, I'm certain most of you caught this match in real time, but if not, let's take a quick look at the numbers, the goals and the quotes. First up, stats and stuff.
The numbers were not kind to Roma, as they were massively outplayed by Lazio, at least in terms of the box score. The Biancoceleste outshot the Giallorossi 16 to 6 (though a higher percentage of Roma's were on target), held the overwhelming share of the ball (63%) and was far more precise in the passing game (78% to 61%), but what do you expect when Vasilis Torosidis is playing pin the tail on the donkey for 90 minutes? Roma was particularly poor when they tried to work the ball down the flanks, especially from the deepest reaches of the pitch; a factor in which, of course, Torosidis was complicit. Roma simply couldn't maintain possession or create decent chances for much of the match, which was reflected in the stat sheets.
Fortunately, Roma did receive a bit of magic from two surprising sources, one disappointing, the other completely unexpected.
Juan Iturbe: 73rd Minute
I hesitate to call Iturbe's debut season in Roma a flop, simply because I don't know what we should have reasonably expected from a 21-year-old kid making a mega million dollar move, but there's no denying it, Iturbe needed that goal. Manu's fourth goal of the season (all comps) seemed, in the moment, like the perfect knife to twist in Lazio's back, but, as we know, that wasn't the case, making his shirt stripping soiree a bit premature.
Back to the goal for a second. Radja Nainggolan and Victor Ibarbo teamed up to deliver Iturbe's first league goal since October. During the run of play, it almost looked as if Ibarbo intercepted a pass meant for Miralem Pjanic, but taking a second look, it seems as though Nainggolan meant to find Ibarbo in space anyway; no harm, no foul, I suppose.
From there, Ibarbo's size and speed finally paid dividends, as he was able to extend his leg to latch onto Nainggolan's pass in the first place before breezing past Santiago Gentiletti to find Iturbe in space. From there, Manu made the most of his quick touch, using his outstep to beat Marchetti at the far post.
It was precisely the sort of quick, bang-bang goal that seems to have disappeared from Roma's playbook, so it was certainly a welcome site, doubly so because Iturbe was involved. Quick, incisive movement should be his bread and butter.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa: 85th Minute
Hard to deny it, he was offsides, but Mbiwa's first Serie A goal, and indeed his first professional goal in several seasons, netted Roma far more than three points, ushering them back into the group stages of next season's Champions League and earning fifty million in the process.
Linesman indiscretions aside, let's give credit to Pjanic and Mbiwa. Pjanic struck the ball perfectly from nearly 40-yards out, giving it just enough weight and placing it on an ideal trajectory to find Mbiwa in the box. Mbiwa beat his defender on the air, cocked his neck back and guided the ball off his fresh to def hightop fade and past a helpless Federico Marchetti.
Manu put his slump busting goal into context by framing it within his own personal struggles, and those of the team at large:
I am happy for the goal and had been waiting a long time, but it arrived at the right moment. I am so happy, not just for me, but for the whole team who deserved this victory and never stopped believing. We knew that we were a strong team, but this year we had difficulties because of injuries. It was not my best season, but I think today I made up for it
Mbiwa was just as elated and equally as relieved as his Argentine teammate when his ball sailed past Marchetti:
My teammates told me I will remain in Roma history now and I am very happy to know that. The important thing is the victory and knowing we will be in the Champions League next season. It was very difficult this evening, but in the end we won...I hadn't scored for many years, but this week we worked a lot on set play situations. It paid off tonight
Finally, we'll end it with the most maligned man in Rome, Rudi Garcia, who lifted the veil on his pre-match gameplans:
After 15 minutes the plan was to sit back and not let Lazio through, sending Florenzi forward round their defenders. As Lazio had played 120 minutes on Wednesday, we predicted they would have a dip in fitness levels and that was the moment we had to change attitude and step up to hurt them. I am very pleased we scored a goal from a free kick, as we've been trying for weeks
On the controversial Totti-for-Ibarbo swap, Garcia suggested it was actually (somewhat) premeditated:
I only substituted him due to the tactical approach. We know Francesco won't stand on the shoulders of defenders and run on the counter. He always had someone pressing him and we wanted him to give his all, then as time wore on and Lazio tired, we'd introduce quicker players, moving Iturbe to the middle.
That way we were able to make the most of the weakness in the central Lazio defence, which is not very quick.
First is The Worst, Second is The Best
Everyone's favorite childhood taunt should ultimately serve as the tagline for Roma's nearly complete season. Although their 70 points (to date) are a far cry from last season's record setting pace, it's a height they hadn't reached (until last year) since the 2009-2010 season, when they finished three points shy of a Scudetto. So we should consider this progress, despite how frustrated we've been throughout the year.
Is this what we expected back in August? Was Roma ever really a Scudetto contender? Are they anywhere near eclipsing Juventus?
We won't know these answers any time soon, but, in the grand scheme, they're irrelevant. Given the amount of turnover this club has seen since the Americans took over, two straight second place finishes and two straight Champions League appearances means this project is right where it should be; to expect anything more would have been premature.
What we have to ask now is simply this: are the right pieces in place, on the pitch, on the touchline and in the front office, or did today's miracle gloss over some serious, more systemic, issues?