Roma and Lazio have been squaring off for nearly 90 years now, but I can’t imagine there’s ever been a derby that started off quite like this one. Within three seconds—five, tops—there was a foul, I kid you not. In the blink of an eye, the match became quite contentious, and in grand derby fashion, showed no signs of abating as the match wore on.
Beyond the premature foul and Roma’s new, shiny kits, the other noticeable difference was Luciano Spalletti’s shift in formation. Prompted by the late week injury to Mohamed Salah (Thanks, Vermaelen), the bald one opted for a malleable three-man backline, which at times morphed into a 4-1-4-1. While it isn’t exactly good business to try out a new formation in such a critical match, Spalletti didn’t really have much choice, and, on the surface, this lineup was well suited to exploit Bruno Peres’ best features, and even Emerson for that matter, to the extent he has any.
Unfortunately for Spalletti, no one really flourished in the first 45 minutes. Roma managed only two shots on goal, both from Edin Dzeko, neither of which were particularly threatening, while the midfield was lacking in imagination and production, completing only 77% of their passes and creating only two scoring chances. They simply couldn’t maintain possession, much less mount a credible attack.
Honestly, Lazio wasn’t playing all that well either, resulting in a stilted and rather dull first half, the flash point of which was a penalty call that was ultimately reversed.
What initially looked like a trip at the end of the box was actually just a piece of shoddy groundskeeping, as Peres lost his footing on the edge of the box, tearing up a piece of sod in the process. While it would have been hilarious had Roma converted on such a bogus penalty, the officials made the correct call.
And that was really it. That was literally Roma’s best chance of the first half, a phantom penalty call correctly reversed. Apropos of nothing, we’ll leave you with this image, which was in every sense of the word emblematic of the first half.
Umm, the second half was just a bit different from the first. Just a bit. While neither side made any substitutions, the second half could not have been any more different from the first. The stoic, almost subdued, tenor of the first half was quickly replaced by the ferocity we’ve grown to know and love from this derby. The second 45 had it all—goals, fights, screaming De Rossi’s—and something we haven’t seen in quite some time, the jubilant celebrations of The Dutch Jesuus himself.
After seizing the initiative, thanks in large part to a resurgent performance from Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman would pounce on a Lazio mistake to put this derby effectively to bed.
Kevin Strootman: 61st Minute
The match commentators immediately condemned Wallace for his ill advised back heel, which was dumb of course, but just look at the quick, precise toe poke Strootman made to dislodge that ball before slotting it home and racing towards the stands like a madman. Given the increasing tension under which this match was being played, you have to love that someone like Strootman—someone who really gets it, who understand why Roma is special—scored the eventual match winner.
However, before we canonize Strootman, we’ll have to chastise him a bit. After scoring the goal, Strootman was horse collared by Danilo Cataldi, seemingly unprovoked....yeah, about that...
As you can see, Strootman cheekily squirts the Lazio sideline with his water bottle, prompting Cataldi to channel his inner Roy Williams, bringing down Strootman by the scruff of his neck, causing Strootman to embellish a bit.
For the full context.....Instigated by Strootman pic.twitter.com/16I694OhY3— Serie A News (@TransfersCalcio) December 4, 2016
During the run of play, that is to say before we knew Strootman started this, it looked like quite a punk move from Lazio’s bench, attacking the man who scored a goal, a goal precipitated by a Lazio mistake, all of which led to this...
All things considered, it could have been much worse, and hey, Lazio got the red card! The Derby della Capitale is unique, to say the least.
However, as we all know, few things are as perilous as a one goal lead when Roma is involved, and while Edin Dzeko came close once again, it was quite fitting that Nainggolan ended all doubt in this derby.
Radja Nainggolan: 77th Minute
GOAL Nainggolan!! Roma 2-0 Lazio pic.twitter.com/aoQVF3pm7J— Serie A News (@TransfersCalcio) December 4, 2016
We all groan when Nainggolan unleashes his 20-30 yard shots, but in this instance, it was the right play, and good lord, what a goal. Look at how this shot curls, beating the keeper, on the short post no less, from distance. What a shot! Nainggolan was a man reborn in the second half, dominating the pitch—this was the Nainggolan we so desperately feared losing over the summer, this is the Nainggolan who gives Antonio Conte the vapors.
And that was really all she wrote. Aside from three yellow cards to close out the match, the remainder of this derby played on without issue, as Roma was able to hold off Lazio for an additional 17 minutes.
In the larger sense, this match and this outcome was enormous. While we spent much of the week fretting about how Roma would survive without Mohamed Salah and with virtually no midfield depth, this match put many of those concerns to rest, for a while at least.
While the three-man backline wasn’t perfect—Bruno Peres and Emerson traded off performances because they couldn’t both possibly play well at the same time—the midfield came alive in the second half, plastering over any minor cracks in Roma’s exterior.
Nainggolan, Strootman and Daniele De Rossi were magnificent in this match, accounting for two goals, three key passes and one assist. Behind the ball, they were just as effective and just as critical to today’s victory. Covering vast swaths of the pitch, the trio tallied up eight tackles, four interceptions, and five clearances. They may not be the most creative midfield in the league, but dammit, when they play like this, Roma is unstoppable; there’s just no getting through them, they’re relentless.
At the end of the day, there are still some long range concerns they must reckon with, but Roma was superlative today, particularly in the second half, propelling them to three absolutely essential points and vaulting them back into second place.
Roma travels to Romania on Thursday for a Europa League formality before hosting Milan in a six pointer on Monday night.