What a difference a week makes. Football is often a sport of momentum, of conviction, of tactical decisions that can be the epicentre of seismic change. Never was that more pertinent than this week.
Eusebio Di Francesco, a Zdenek Zeman disciple seemingly wedded to a 4-3-3 system, decided to radically shift from his beliefs a mere two days before their game against Barcelona on Tuesday night.
Di Francesco employed a 3-4-1-2, a formation never before implemented, and the end result was Roma pulling off arguably the greatest result in the club’s history, and conversely seeing them into a European semi-final for the first time since the 1991 UEFA Cup. Di Francesco’s already burgeoning reputation within the peninsula is now gaining global status.
Just two nights later, Lazio and Simone Inzaghi felt the reverse effect. Despite fielding their strongest XI, sticking to their usual 3-5-1-1 formation, having a two-goal cushion from the first leg and adding to their advantage early in the second half through Ciro Immobile, the Biancocelesti then somehow contrived to blow a three-goal lead inside 20 ludicrous minutes at the Red Bull Arena. Inzaghi didn’t know whether to stick or twist.
Lazio’s ‘blackout’, as Inzaghi said afterwards, cost them a first semi-final in 15 years and a possible route to the Final, given that Salzburg drew Marseille rather than favourites Atletico Madrid or Arsenal. A hard lesson for Inzaghi’s young and brash side to swallow.
Prior to the midweek European games, both side’s form in Serie A had been patchy: Lazio had only won two of their last five games, dropping points against Cagliari and Bologna. Roma meanwhile, had drawn 1-1 with Bologna and lost 2-0 at home to Fiorentina going into the Barcelona game. Minds were clearly elsewhere.
Yet the enormity of Roma’s comeback triumph on Tuesday night will give the Giallorossi the feeling that they can now take on all comers in the league. Di Francesco’s European masterclass exorcised a string of demons on the continent, stretching back to their 7-1 mauling against Manchester United in April 2007. The Roma boss has been coy over the possibility of sticking with his newfound system.
Both this season have made the capital a footballing force for the first time since arguably the turn of the century. They’ve brought the focus back to the Eternal City through their European adventures, together having their best seasons since 1998-99.
Contrast the mood in both camps, and all the evidence points to a Roma victory, but as Di Francesco has noted in the build up to the game, a derby is a standalone event, and form counts for precious little.
This is the biggest Roman affair since the final of the Coppa Italia nearly half a decade ago. With both teams battling it out for Champions League positions, they can ill afford to lose ground, especially with Inter right in the mix and Milan slowly encroaching.
Lazio will surely have taken stock of all the added revenue Champions League football brings, with Roma having earned an estimated €95m through a combination of UEFA, the TV market pool and gate receipts. Huge money for a team trying desperately to stay in tune with FFP.
Their city neighbours want a piece of that lucrative pie. In the corresponding fixture last season, the attendance was around the 40,000 mark. Latest reports suggest there will be between 55-60,000 Romans inside the Stadio Olimpico. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.