Straight from the dark heart of Italy
For once Roman hyperbole is not overstepping the mark and Saturday’s encounter with Inter is indeed “the game of the year.”
The phrase has been on the lips of the ever-talkative Roma fans since witnessing their heroes come away from Bologna with victory in midweek to leave them just four points off the leaders.
It's good to see the capital abuzz after throwing off its winter coat and the first rays of warming sunshine have brought the locals flocking out to populate the squares.
Even the paving stones in the Testaccio area - where the club played their formative games - have been given a fresh lick of yellow and red paint whilst banners and flags have started to festoon balconies and window ledges.
Where else would anyone want to be than in the Eternal City on the weekend when the title race could finally come alive for real? Any excuse for a party at which Bacchus would have slurred, so there was little need for Claudio Ranieri to turn into a club promoter to incite the locals into the Olympic Stadium – which already had the sold-out signs up first thing Thursday morning.
It has been a long time coming but slowly, steadily and almost stealth-like - in fact the complete antitheses of Roman thought – La Roma have clawed back a deficit that stood at 14 points when the teams last met back in November.
Ranieri has lived by his code of humility rather than humiliation and those qualities have rubbed off on the players.
Fabio Capello once complained that during his time in charge if the team went unbeaten for two or three games he had to watch them like a hawk in case they started treating life as an excuse to kick back and enjoy the trappings of success. Now after a 20-game unbeaten run, the height of excess has been a group evening out for a pizza and home to bed before 10.
Some of the more exuberant club followers long for the old days when garishly-clothed players would saunter up to various restaurants, bars and clubs to while away the night. The downside of that came at the weekend when they had to put with the self-same players turning it on for 20 minutes or so before wandering around in a trance.
Luciano Spalletti’s final months in charge were a bit like that: everyone, including the fans, had become comfortable, accepting that the team was never going to be a force to compete with Inter. The champagne football had lost its fizz. Ranieri has arrested that drift into lethargy and in doing so has put a solid work-ethic in place. But there have been signs that he will let the players off the leash now and then.
The last two games have seen him employ a three-man attack. Jeremy Menez and Mirko Vucinic responded with swaggering performances, while Luca Toni has been a more than willing battering ram amongst the dandies.
There were signs that the game at Bologna was a dry-run for Inter: Rodrigo Taddei hardly ventured into the opposition’s third, while David Pizarro was so withdrawn the little Chilean was almost a sweeper in front of the back four. Full-backs John Arne Riise and Marco Cassetti held their line and were only allowed to tiptoe forward on special occasions.
The tactic of building solid foundations worked against a home side that possess a similar physicality to Jose Mourinho’s men – albeit minus the class, skill and know-how of world-class players – and that should be the approach again. Apart from Juan returning in the heart of the defence and maybe Simone Perrotta replacing Menez or possibly Taddei if he feels punchy, Ranieri should stick with the starting XI from midweek.
With Mourinho set to show his “Chelsea hand” again, maybe for once Ranieri won't come, see and tinker – leading to a night of revelry in the Eternal City.
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