Straight from the dark heart of Italy
There was something in the air ahead of the Rome derby, and it wasn’t Olympia the eagle, which had been grounded due to fears for the poor feathered soul’s wellbeing.
The last time the Lazio mascot was let loose he/she/it remained on the stadium roof for 35 minutes before being coaxed down – so rather than turn the event into a bird of prey target practice session, Olympia was instead paraded in front of the relative haven of the Monte Mario and Curva Nord stand ahead of the game.
The military band of the Bersaglieri must have wished they had remained there as well. The Sharpshooters don’t march, they jog and they needed to be quick on their feet when they ventured over to the Curva Sud – home of the AS Roma hardcore fan base.
There to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the unity of Italy and as a tribute to Lazio founder Luigi Bigiarelli, the little runners were met by a burning flare arching through the air and into their ranks.
The trumpeters legged it through the smokescreen to the other end of the stadium where they received a warmer welcome.
Already it had all the makings of another heated Derby della Capitale but it was a shame to see such wide open spaces along one side of the ground.
The running battles in the Tevere stand which marred last season’s corresponding fixture had left that area a no-man’s land, open only to Lazio season-ticket holders, children and the over-60s – and we wonder why the Italian game is not family-orientated.
Three o’clock is no longer the traditional kick-off time for big games and despite one team being top of the league and the other coming off a win in the Champions League there seemed little enthusiasm among the locals to turn out in large numbers - and who can blame them.
There were the usual crowd disturbances along the Ponte Milvio after the game although the police claimed it ‘a success’ that only one fan had been stabbed, while another lost a finger trying to scale a wall into the stadium.
While the aforementioned Roma fans were spoiling the band and eagle’s afternoon, their Lazio counterparts took to taunting the rather soft target of Adriano, unfurling an enormous banner with the appropriate enough but less than original ‘Hippopotamus Adriano’ scrawled across it.
Having failed to grab the imagination off the pitch, there was plenty to hold attention on it and any match that is decided by two penalties is always going to be somewhat contentious.
There can be little argument about the first spot-kick when Stefan Lichsteiner’s hand got in the way of a thunderous goal-bound Simplicio effort – and the referee had already pointed to the spot before the Roma players could swarm over him like a swarm of shouty, whinging bees.
But the second was not quite so clear-cut. Julio Baptista pushed Lichsteiner, who then collided with Guglielmo Stentardo as he mistimed his leap: the loose ball fell to the Brazilian who tumbled under the slightest contact from Andre Dias.
Lazio had two genuine appeals for spot kicks of their own waved away: the first when Sergio Floccari tangled with Philippe Mexes, whose swan-dive earned him top marks for evading a certain red card as well.
The referee then missed John Arne Riise dragging Stefano Mauro down as a free-kick was swung into the area, although his assistant had also not spotted that Dias was in an offside position when the dead-ball was struck.
Claudio Ranieri filled the midfield with lively players with energy to burn, nullifying Lazio’s strongest area of the pitch and in turn providing a springboard for attacks from eventual goalscorers Mirko Vucinic and Marco Borriello.
Ranieri had already given notice of his approach to the encounter in the pre-game press conference when he recalled legendary Roma coach Zdenek Zeman’s feelings that the derby was ‘just another match’.
Being a Roman and a Romanisti, there were never going to be any feelings of neutrality from the Giallorossi coach, who now has three consecutive derby wins to his name.
As expected Francesco Totti’s absence was more of a hindrance for Lazio: having no hate-figure to direct their ire towards while the Roma players were not obliged to pass the ball to their captain at every turn. And would the local lad have kept his cool when it came to the penalty kicks?
Ranieri got it spot on while his opposite number, the more prosaic Edoardo Reja, failed to dare when it really mattered – and now we have to wonder if the eagle is in danger of becoming permanently grounded.
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