Despite another mini-protest from Roma’s ultras, the Olimpico was pulsating as the Giallorossi strode upon the pitch in their resplendent kits, freshly emblazoned with a gold SPQR across the chest, a subtle suggestion that only one of these sides truly embodies the spirit of the Eternal City. But pride and sentiment can only do so much for a side, with three massive points on the line, it was absolutely essential that Roma came out crisp, and with a couple of chances in the first ten minutes—Mohamed Salah and Edin Dzeko in particular—Luciano Spalletti’s men were raring to go.
But, you know how that story goes. Roma had two genuine chances in the first seven or eight minutes alone, a rushed header from Dzeko and a low shot from Salah that sailed wide, but it was Lazio who capitalized on their first chance.
Keita Balde: 12th Minute
Keita Balde made absolute fools out of both Emerson Palmieri and Federico Fazio here, shaking the Argentine out of his boots before nutmegging the Brazilian, beating Wojciech Szczesny with ease. A pretty unnerving goal when you consider how much Roma was dominating the early passage of play.
Or, simply look at it another way, it only took Lazio 12 minutes to crack the Spalletti code. Emerson’s forward runs were simply leaving Lazio too much space to exploit on the other end, as neither Emerson nor Stephan El Shaarawy could track back fast enough when Lazio countered. It really is the biggest peril of this particular lineup/scheme, which is further compounded when Dzeko and Salah aren’t converting on their chances. Which was further further compounded by all three of Roma’s midfielders pushing well up the pitch, leaving the back four at peril. Which was further further further compounded by Lazio collapsing on Dzeko and Salah whenever they found the ball in attacking space. Point being, Lazio gamed Roma right out of this match in the first half, throwing the perfect tactical counter to Spalletti’s attacking schemes.
Whatever you call it, Roma simply couldn’t solve this particular Lazio riddle, but the Giallorossi were bailed out by Orsato’s hasty whistle. After Kevin Strootman drew a “penalty”, Daniele De Rossi stepped up to the spot.
Daniele De Rossi: 45th Minute
When you consider the circumstances, you may never see a calmer penalty. De Rossi literally just jogged up and tapped it like he was playing with one of his kids. Though the kick itself was benign, De Rossi’s celebration was anything but—as the only Roman on the pitch, DDR celebrated as only a Romanista could, by wildly gesticulating in front of the Lazio bench.
Totti may be the brains and inspiration behind Roma, but De Rossi was always the grit, the vindication and the fury, all of which was on display after he levelled the match.
Roma started the second 45 with an actual tactical change, swapping Stephan El Shaarawy for Bruno Peres, shifting to three man backline in the process. By making this shift, Spalletti was hoping to stretch the Lazio defense at the back, which was remarkably flexible and resolute in the first frame. Smart move, but would it work?
In a word, no. The 2015 vintage of Edin Dzeko reared his ugly head, as he missed two semi-chances in the first half, leaving the door open for a Lazio counter strike. And hey, look at that it happened.
Dusan Basta: 50th Minute
It wasn’t the most clinical goal ever, but the manner in which Basta’s shot was deflected (twice) makes you wonder if there was some karmic retribution at play here for Roma’s phantom penalty late in the first half. Call it what you want, but Basta’s first goal in 79 appearances was enough to put Roma on the back foot again.
But you’ll have to forgive me for burying the lede here: the real culprit is Dzeko’s propensity to disappear in big matches like a fart in the wind. By any estimation, Dzeko had three genuine chances on goal and flub each and every single one of them. Now, that doesn’t negate all the wonderful things he’s done this season, but this isn’t exactly the first time we’ve seen Dzeko come up short when Roma needs him most.
Spalletti would make his second change of the half later on, removing Federico Fazio in favor of Diego Perotti. Yes, minutes after changing to a three man backline, Spalletti changed it right back. I can’t really explain it, but the width he seemingly schemed to bring into his side was immediately erased.
The moment we all waited for came in the 74th minute as Francesco Totti was subbed on for Daniele De Rossi. At this point in the season, and considering how little he’s played, why Spalletti waited so long to make this move is beyond me; Totti should have started the second half. 40-years-old or not, there is no one on this team who can change the tenor of a match quite like he can, and, just as it has all season long, it’s gone to waste.
The debate was ultimately academic, however. While Woj was able to save Roma from falling further behind a couple times late in the match, he couldn’t conjure up that magic against Keita Balde one-v-one in the 85th minute, as Balde’s second goal made it 3-1, icing this derby once and for all.
Because there’s so much blame to go around, we’ll compartmentalize this breakdown.
What can we say? For much of the season he’s been fantastic, playing aggressive, shooting with aplomb and scoring goals at the ready. But he still exhibits latent Dzeko tendencies, falling down at the slightest touch, attacking with the grace of a new born giraffe and shooting with the accuracy of a late-night-I’m-not-turning-on-the-light trip to the bathroom. Dead Eye had two legitimate chances in the first ten minutes of the match, and a couple more early in the second, but was left wanting. At this point, he’s kind of like the basketball player who pads his stats against lousy teams in the fourth quarter—time to move on.
While this one ultimately falls on the man pulling the strings, Kevin Strootman, Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan were well off the mark today. For all their wonderful qualities, this trio is simply too similar top to bottom to play alongside one another each and every week, only in this instance their best quality—defensive cover—was nowhere to be seen. Couple this with Emerson’s forward runs and Roma’s backline was woefully exposed to Lazio’s counter attacks.
Now we get to the real meat of the issue, the man behind the curtain. While I don’t have any qualms about his starting eleven—the 4-2-3-1 has worked well lately—the actual manner in which he deployed them and his subsequent reactions to Inzaghi’s counter moves was pitiful. Emerson and Rüdiger’s forward runs enabled Lazio to catch and stretch Kostas Manolas and Federico Fazio at the back, and when Spalletti correctly countered that by switching to a three man backline, he quickly undid that ten minutes or so later by taking Fazio off. I won’t lay into him for the Totti sub because, well, because it was rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things given how poorly the rest of the team was playing anyway.
I’ve long had faith that Spalletti would return next season, simply because I think he’s the best man for the job at this particular time, but, much like Dzeko, Spalletti has come up short in the most critical of moments. And when you factor that with Monchi’s triumphant arrival in the Eternal City, it’s not hard to imagine the Spaniard wanting to select his own man to helm the sixth iteration of Roma’s American beta test.
As far as the rest of the weekend is concerned, you’ll want to keep an eye on the finale to round 34—Inter vs Napoli. If the Nerazzurri can do us a favor and topple Dries Mertens and friends, Roma will maintain their four point lead, otherwise we’re staring at a one-point lead with four matches to play, one of which is against Juventus.
So throw out all the tactical debates, the pangs of Totti retiring and Spalletti’s treatment of him therein, your disappointment in Bruno Peres. Throw it all away. Over the next month the only thing worth saving is second place. They can blow everything up over the summer for all I care, but if Roma are forced to play a Champions League qualifier in August, it’ll be deja vu all over again.
Those shirts were fucking dope, though.