Pitchside Europe

Sky’s the limit for new-look Roma after beating rivals Lazio

Pitchside Europe

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Just wait until the Romanisti see this, thought the Lazio ultras. Imagine their faces, all the pained expressions. Wouldn’t it be a picture?

They’d planned a choreography for Sunday’s Derby della Capitale. Balloons would lift a huge Coppa Italia above the Curva Nord to remind those sat opposite of May 26, 2013. That was the date of last season’s final, the first ever between the fierce rivals.

Whoever lost it would never live it down. Not in the Eternal City. ‘They’d want to die’ was the hyperbolic refrain. And so after Roma’s 1-0 defeat, Lazio fans held mock funerals for their cugini on the Milvio bridge.

They’d also hire a light aircraft to fly over Roma’s Open Day with a banner trailing from its fuselage that read: “The real truth is that we hurt you: 26-05-13.”

A barbed response to a similar stunt Roma supporters had pulled while Lazio played Juventus in the Italian Super Cup at the Olimpico, it rankled.

As did the opportunism shown by Senad Lulic, the hero of the Coppa Italia final, whose 71st minute goal proved the difference. Partnering with Lazio’s kit manufacturers Macron, he’s to produce a clothing line under the label Senad 71.

It’s all been a bit much for Roma. Mindful of how provocative Lazio’s choreography might be and the threat it perhaps posed to public order, the Questura forbade it.

In protest, the ultras left a banner in the Nord revealing that they’d finish their beers and take their seats five minutes after kick-off. They were late to a party that ultimately wasn’t theirs, but turned out to be that of Francesco Totti and Roma instead.

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Earlier in the week, president James Pallotta had flown in from the US. He was in town for the derby, but not only that. Totti’s contract was due to expire at the end of this season.

Roma’s captain, who turns 37 this week, lightly reminded the club of the fact at a kit launch in July by saying: “I have worn many [Roma] shirts, but this is the last.” Promises had been made by the Americans and hadn’t yet been kept.

In tumult after the defeat in the Coppa Italia final, general manager Franco Baldini had resigned. At the time the club had still to appoint a new coach and then on doing so had to balance his needs with those of the owners to turn a profit on player sales after a €69m negative net spend over the past two years. So Roma can be forgiven for being late on Totti’s new deal.

The timing of it, though, really couldn’t have been any better. It provided another narrative ahead of the derby, one that ever so slightly shifted the attention away from it simply being Roma and Lazio’s first meeting since the Coppa Italia final.

PR-wise it was also a great move by the American owners. And oh how they needed it too after the fake sheikh, the logo change and various other false steps.

As Totti himself alluded to, Roma were treating him as Juventus should have treated Alessandro Del Piero. It was an open goal and they didn’t miss.

There was a momentum about the club again, a sense that they’d turned a corner. The person perhaps more responsible for that than anyone, though, is Rudi Garcia.

Few Roma coaches have had to confront Lazio head-on with such immediacy. That’s not a reference to how early the derby features in the fixture list, rather the lingering shadow last season’s Coppa Italia cast on his new team’s preparations for the coming campaign.

There were protests at pre-season training against the owners and the players, in particular Dani Osvaldo, Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanic, who had made the ‘mistake’ of saying that while losing the final to Lazio burned, he was happy for Lulic, his compatriot.

Garcia’s reaction to this was simple. “Those fans who criticise the players and the team can’t be Romanisti. Perhaps they’re Laziali.” It won him the respect of the dressing room immediately.

To stand up for Osvaldo even when the club wished to sell him and the player also had it in mind to leave, impressed the so-called ‘senators’ among the squad. Here was a coach who was prepared to protect his players no matter what. Is it any wonder that they’re playing hard for him?

They like his mentality. Heading into the weekend at the top of the table and with maximum points from their opening three games, Garcia could be forgiven for being cautious ahead of his first Rome derby. His previous experience - Lens-Lille - didn’t really compare.

“There are 45,000 fans at the Stade Felix Bollaert too, but of course here it’s different.” He didn’t hold back. “You don’t play the derby,” Garcia said. “You win it.” And Roma did just that with a mature performance.

Aware that Lazio had played in the Europa League on Thursday and would tire, Garcia told his players to be patient. “You saw the work done in the first half pay off after the interval,” he said. “We were good at exploiting the drop-off in their physical condition.”

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Just after the hour-mark, Federico Balzaretti hit the post. Off the pitch for a moment, he came back on to receive another pass from Totti in more or less the same position. This time he scored.

It was only the fourth of the full-back’s career, his first since April 23, 2011 and his first for Roma.

Running under the Curva Sud, it meant everything to Balzaretti. Often criticised last season and under scrutiny after Parma’s Jonathan Biabiany gave him the run around earlier in the week, it was a liberation. Like Rapunzel, he let down his hair, put his hands into it and cried, entering derby folklore as he did.

Roma got a little lucky when André Dias was rather harshly sent off for violent conduct four minutes after coming on for Michaël Ciani. His shoulder barge on Totti looked worse than it actually was and he didn’t deny a clear goalscoring opportunity.

The decision stopped Lazio’s comeback attempt before it had even started, although Roma once again restricted their opponents to few clear cut chances.

They have let in only one goal all season and have conceded just five shots on target, further underlining how organised they are with Garcia at the helm compared with the looseness that characterised their play under predecessors Luis Enrique and Zdenek Zeman.

Any hopes of snatching a draw evaporated in the 93rd minute when Lazio midfielder Cristian Ledesma brought down the jinking Adem Ljajić in the area.

The 21-year-old stepped up to the spot - Totti had been taken off by this point - and put away the penalty to score his second goal in three appearances following his move from Fiorentina and win Roma their first derby since March 13, 2011.

That was 925 days ago, before the takeover.

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Roma’s American owners finally had their first victory in the derby. Pallotta was seen in a warm embrace with Walter Sabatini in the stands. Roma’s director of sport had come under criticism over the transfer window.

The sales of Marquinhos and Osvaldo were all well and good for €46.6m, but why, the fans asked, did Roma have to part with Erik Lamela, even at €30m? Replacing him with Ljajić, the in-form player towards the end of last season in Serie A, for just €11m, however, looks a great piece of business.

The other additions - particularly goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis, centre-back Mehdi Benatia, right-back Maicon and midfielder Kevin Strootman - have added experience and mark a change in tack from investing solely in young promise to players capable of helping the team win now. A net spend of +€38m also did Sabatini’s reputation no harm.

Persuaded by the players to go under the Curva Sud at the end of the derby, Garcia on seeing De Rossi crying also couldn’t hold back his emotion.

“From today,” he said, “I am one of you. I feel Romanista… We have put the church back in the centre of the village.”

That French idiom connotes the importance of bringing a community together around a sense of order and shared priorities. Doing that at Roma has been beyond many other coaches. Garcia, however, seems to be managing it.

With four wins from four, this is Roma’s best start to a season since 1960/61. Incidentally they finished fifth at the end of that campaign, enough for a place in the Fairs Cup.

Garcia claims his objective is also “to get into the top five, [and] return to European competition [after Roma’s failure to qualify for Champions League and the Europa League in each of the last two seasons].”

Given how well they have started this one, many believe Roma can aspire for more.

James Horncastle | Follow on Twitter

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