The past 96 hours have been unlike anything I have ever witnessed or experienced as a Roma fan and/or writer. Even the staunchest Roma supporters became healthy skeptics when faced with a 4-1 aggregate deficit against mighty Barcelona. However, thanks to an impressive tactical turn by Eusebio Di Francesco and an early strike by Edin Dzeko, the stage was set for the Manolas Miracle. With a flick of his glorious Greek head, Kostas Manolas sealed the deal, pusing Roma to the semifinals of the Champions League for the first time in 30 years.
In its wake, Roma became the darlings of the football world, sporting cover stories from outlets like The Guardian, The Ringer and ESPN. It was, as we detailed yesterday, quite an odd experience: Roma was, if only for a week, one of the most popular clubs in the world.
And now that Roma’s veritable 15 minutes of fame are subsiding, we’re faced with a grim reality. Thanks to successive stumbles against Bologna and Fiorentina, Roma’s grasp on third/fourth place in Serie A, and by extension their place in the Champions League next season (barring a Champions League title of course), has become quite perilous.
Lazio v. Roma: April 15, 20:45 CET/2:45 EDT. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
With Lazio ripping off two straight domestic victories, they’re now even with their city rivals on 60 points, and would love nothing more than to burst Roma’s bubble by leapfrogging them in the standings, leaving the Giallorossi to fight it out with Inter Milan for fourth place.
And really, Roma are fighting three beasts here. First, there’s the inevitable come down from that Barcelona victory, can they maintain focus on what remains (arguably) the more important fixture, or has the hoopla of the past several days served as a distraction? Second, there’s EDF’s masterstroke of tactical ingenuity from Tuesday evening. The switch to the 3-4-1-2 provided such stirring results, it’s tempting to assume this will be the new normal, but what worked so well against Barca might not be what’s best against Lazio—that shift could very well prove to be a one-time shot. And lastly, there’s the simple matter of battling Lazio in and of itself. With 75 goals scored, the ugly side of the city are the league’s most potent attack, while their +35 goal differential makes them equally adept on the defensive end.
Point being—and I’ve said this many times before—Roma would overlook this match at their own peril. That’s not to say they have or will (it is the derby, after all), but the conditions for distraction are ripe—the huge and unexpected win, the unprecedented mainstream media attention, and the now fervent tactical debate are all vultures preying on Roma’s piece of mind.
So while we’d love to assume a team that effectively manhandled Barcelona over two legs (minus some own goals and cowardly defending in the first leg) can make short work of Lazio, these 90 minutes are every bit as important as Tuesday’s.
As far as the particulars of the match are concerned, especially as they relate to the looming Liverpool fixtures, Roma has a bit of a cushion in between the derby and their trip to Anfield—Genoa and SPAL 2013—so squad rotation isn’t an issue yet. With that in mind, don’t be shocked if EDF reverts back to his base 4-3-3 with Dzeko flanked by Cengiz Ünder and Stephan El Shaarawy, with the latter two thirds of the formation remaining unchanged.
I’m struggling to end this preview without making too many ties to the Liverpool fixtures, so I can’t even imagine what must be going through the minds of the players and coaching staff, but there’s no escaping it—this isn’t normal for Roma. We hope it will be one day, but for now it’s completely foreign, so exactly how EDF approaches this is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain, every move he makes on the pitch and training ground between now and the 24th must be aimed towards striking a balance between continuity and preserving energy.
Despite all that uncertainty, there is one thing that will always be true—Roma hates Lazio, and Lazio hates Roma. That century old contempt has a way of making all other concerns superfluous.