Paddy Agnew’s Notes from Italy: Roma establish their title credentials, though few present to witness it

Roma ultras who missed their side’s 2-0 victory over rivals Lazio, may be regretting their decision to stay away.

Halfway through the second half of yesterday’s Rome derby, emphatically won 2-0 by Roma, coach Rudi Garcia turned to the grandstand at the Olimpico in Rome and waved his arms as he called on the Roma supporters to up the volume and get behind their team.   The point is that yesterday’s derby was one of the strangest editions ever seen of this normally overheated encounter.

For a start, hardline “ultra” fans from both clubs opted, as they have done since September, not to attend the game, leaving the respective team “kops”, curva sud (Roma) and curva nord (Lazio), strangely empty.  In the end, less than 30,000 fans attended the game in the 72,000 capacity Olimpico, robbing the match of its traditional pressure cooker atmosphere.

As it is, by the standards of modern football, the Rome Olympic stadium is a total disaster.   No matter where you sit, most of the “action” takes place in another townland.  Binoculars are always a good idea for the “Olimpico”.    This is often the case in those “institutional” stadia which come fitted with a (little used) running track.

However, when the Olimpico is full, the fervent atmosphere can sometimes make it seem like a real football stadium despite the running track.    Yet, the half-empty stadium – for some of Lazio’s home games, it can be two thirds empty – often makes it feel as if the match is being played behind closed doors.

Currently, both Roma and Lazio ultra are enraged by the decision of the city Prefect (head of police) Franco Gabrielli to divide up both “curve”.   Essentially, in the interests of crowd control, Gabrielli has placed a partition right down the the middle of each “kop”, thus depriving the fans of their traditional freedom of movement.  Worse still, more than 40 Roma fans last September received a €167 euro fine because they did not sit at their allotted seats during Roma’s 2-1 defeat of Juventus.

Given the way the game went, one wonders if the Roma ultra are not just a little sorry that they opted to sit this one out.   Four days after an important 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League, a win that gives Roma a fair crack at second round qualification, Rudi Garcia’s team confirmed their current good moment, notwithstanding a 1-0 top of the table loss to Inter Milan ten days ago.

In what increasingly looks like a wide open title battle in which the first four (Fiorentina, Inter, Roma and Napoli) are separated by just two points, Roma are clearly going to have their say.   As Garcia put it two years ago after winning his first Rome derby, also 2-0,  “we have put the church back in the centre of the village”.

Garcia had suggested before the game that, after the Bayer Leverkusen win,  his team’s morale was at 110%.   Lazio, on the other hand, came into the game just one week after a bruising 3-1 home defeat by Milan.   The difference was there for all to see as Roma largely outplayed a subdued Lazio.

Mind you, a 10th minute penalty, incorrectly awarded to Roma, clearly set the game on a downward spiral for Lazio.   Argentine Santiago Gentiletti brought down Roma’s Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko just outside the area but referee Paolo Tagliavento called it a penalty.   Given that the distance outside the line was fractional, the mistake was understandable but it certainly impacted on the game.

After that, Ivory Coast striker Gervinho, the best player on the park, rounded off a superb performance by scoring a 63rd minute goal, following a well-timed diagonal run and a terrific pass from Belgian Radj Nainggolan.

So, where from here for Roma?   As fas as the title race is concerned, that “village centre” is looking crowded as well.   Fiorentina continued to look elegant and good in a 2-0 away win against Sampdoria that keeps them joint top with Roberto Mancini’s Inter Milan who notched up their seventh 1-0 win in 12 games when defeating Torino.    Meanwhile Argentine Gonzalo Higuain did the business again for Napoli in a 1-0 home win against Udinese in a game that Napoli dominated and which they should have put to bed long before the final whistle.

One suspects that the “morale” factor related to the Champions League could greatly influence the Roma season.   With an away game against Barcelona and a home game against Bielarusian side Bate Borisov still to play, Roma (currently 2nd in their group) have got it all to do.   If they do get through, however, that could represent a Rubicon-type crossing for a team that continues to alternate the technically brilliant with the mentally fragile.

Final thought, folks.   Watch out, Juventus have just won two consecutive games against Torino and Empoli and are now just nine points from the top.   Is the Old Lady on the way back?