23 games unbeaten. Five wins on the spin. One point clear of distracted Inter in the most hotly-contested scudetto race for years. The recent record of Roma’s well-travelled coach Claudio Ranieri stacks up well against the wealth of past evidence suggesting that the ‘Tinkerman’ was something short of competency at the very highest level.
Chief among the concerns of the ever-diminishing anti-Ranieri brigade has been his past propensity for oblique team selection – and a long history of strange substitutions at curious times. The fact that the Roman has thus far failed to secure a top-flight title, in an otherwise trophy-rich career, is commonly used as a stick with which to beat him. The events of the past weekend in Serie A, however, may well prove crucial in changing perceptions of the ex-Chelsea and Valencia boss forever.
In the aftermath of an execrable (and tempestuous) Derby d’Italia, played on Friday evening to assist with Inter’s Champions League preparations and illuminated only briefly by Maicon’s marvellous moment, and Sampdoria’s last-gasp win over Milan, Roma’s brief was clear – beat bitter rivals Lazio to reclaim the league lead and write Milan out of the race for good. Simple, no?
It’s rare that any Derby della Capitale proves to be a straightforward affair, though. In contrast to their title-chasing adversaries, Lazio – boasting an improved record under Edy Reja after Davide ballardini presided over their worst league run in 20 years – are battling hard for Serie A survival; lying a mere three points above the drop-zone before kick-off. It’s just three years since the biancocelesti were enjoying Champions League football, but a gradual decline in standards now threatens to totally destabilise one of Italian football’s grandest names. With so much at stake, the Roman police feared tensions between the two sets of tifosi would be exacerbated; and so peculiarly reacted by bringing kick-off forward by a couple of hours, at short notice.
Clearly, favourites Roma miserably failed to adjust to the new set of circumstances as they fumbled their way through the first half; rocked by Lazio skipper Tomasso Rocchi’s expertly-taken opening goal and continually tormented by the perceptibly passionate play of their struggling counterparts. It had become, for Roma, one of those derby occasions where the heart rules the head and brainless football is the product. Both captain fantastic Francesco Totti and his deputy Daniele De Rossi were rightly yellow-carded, as the charged atmosphere on the terraces of the Olimpico seeped onto the field of play.
It was obvious a half-time change was required – of tactics, of personnel, of anything which would shake up the slumbering giallorossi. Roma president Rosella Sensi must have been reaching for the keys to a padded dungeon and dusting off an old straightjacket long-abandoned in the Stadio Olimpico lost property box, however, when Ranieri pulled a rather spectacular make-or-break decision from the darker recesses of his unpredictable mind. Both Rome-born gladiatori – Totti and De Rossi – were substituted; in their places arrived Rodrigo Taddei and fast-improving Frenchman Jeremy Ménéz.
Recall, if you will, the press-pack and phone-in hysterics surrounding Rafa Benítez’s occasional withdrawal from action of either Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres with some 20-or-so minutes remaining. Then, to extrapolate, picture a (wildly improbable) scenario in which Liverpool are taking on Everton with the Premier League title on the line; the Reds trail at the break, so Rafa hauls off both Gerrard and Torres in response. The sheer rabid apoplexy that would ensue hardly bears thinking about. So make no bones about it: Ranieri’s decision was risky in the extreme.
Almost immediately it appeared that it had backfired when Lazio continued their flying form into the opening seconds of the second half. Mobile wing-back Aleksandar Kolarov surged towards the Roma penalty area and obliged with a swan-dive as hero of the season’s first derby, Marco Cassetti, left his leg dangling dangerously on the fringe of the box. The game’s momentum was instantly reversed, however, when on-loan striker Sergio Floccari had his mediocre penalty kick repelled by Roma ‘keeper Júlio Sérgio.
An apparent sense of relief instantly pervaded the Roma team. Let off the hook, the probing of Menez and the indefatigable David Pizzaro pushed their teammates forward in search of an equaliser, which duly materialised within just minutes of Lazio’s penalty miss. Sub Taddei repayed Ranieri’s faith and meted out a spot of karmic justice, as he too ‘earned’ a penalty by clearly diving over the half-challenge of Kolarov in the area. Unlike Floccari, free-scoring Mirko Vučinić would make no mistake from the spot and matters were again level. The usually implacable Montenegrin’s release valve obviously exploded following the sudden release of such immense pressure, as he celebrated the goal – his 9th in ten matches – in an atypically wild manner.
Vucinic’s reactions were a little more muted ten minutes later, when he capitalised on Cristian Brocchi’s reluctance to face up to his rocket-like free-kick from just outside the ‘D’. The veteran midfielder leapt out of the way, leaving Fernando Muslera woefully exposed, as Vucinic hammered a shot straight through the disintegrated defensive wall and into the top-centre of the Lazio net. His tenth goal in as many games was a most emphatic rebuttal of those critics that have so frequently doubted his contribution to the cause. It was also a goal to settle the derby.
Mauro Zárate (on for the revved-up Stephan Lichtsteiner, who refused to shake Reja’s hand upon his substitution, then returned to the field at the final whistle to participate prominently in one of a number of unseemly scuffles between the players) briefly threatened to provoke a Lazio revival, but Rocchi acrobatically zipped an effort from the Argentine’s pass just over the bar. To cap a miserable second half for the Aquile, influential midfielder Cristian Ledesma was shown a second yellow late on as the final moments descended predictably into bitter acrimony.
The last time Roma overcame their detested city rivals, in December last year, they stood 11 points adrift of Inter in 6th place. They now sit atop the standings with only four rounds remaining and challengers Inter potentially preoccupied with the considerable challenge of taming the Barça beast.In the Eternal City it’s said that fortune favours the brave, and if Roma can pull off this, one of the greatest comebacks in calcio history, Claudio Ranieri’s boldest move yet may be regarded as the pivotal moment in securing a Roman triumph.