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Rome derby in Coppa Italia has potential to not only disrupt the city but Roma’s season

Ian Hawkey previews the Coppa Italia semi-final between city rivals Roma and Lazio.
Roma kept their Serie A title hopes alive with a 3-1 win over Inter Milan on Sunday. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP
Roma kept their Serie A title hopes alive with a 3-1 win over Inter Milan on Sunday. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

A number of Romans could have done without a derby in the semi-final of the Coppa Italia.

The city’s guardians of law and order prefer collisions between Lazio and Roma be restricted to two per year, the Serie A obligations, and, where possible, to schedule these battles for the afternoon, not the evening. But this Coppa clash is a midweek event, and, it being a working day on Wednesday, has to take place after dark.

Police will be deployed in numbers around a fixture that has drawn violence between supporters too often in recent years that those in uniform cannot be on high alert. And, being a semi-final, there’s another leg to come, at the beginning of next month.

Roma’s coaching staff might also have preferred a less charged game in the last four of the Coppa, fully aware of the sapping effect a derby can have on its participants.

Roma, chasing three possible titles this season, take on their local rivals in the midst of a make-or-break sequence. They may be buoyed by Sunday’s 3-1 away win over Inter Milan which keeps up their pursuit of leaders Juventus in Serie A, but they hardly have time to catch breath.

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Luciano Spalletti, the manager, will from Thursday be preparing Roma for the visit of third-placed Napoli, on Saturday, and then a midweek contest with Olympique Lyonnais in the last 16 of the Europa League.

That cluttered diary means Spalletti must look to his reserves. They have been useful in the Cups. It was thanks to his most prominent backup man that Roma squeezed into the Coppa semi-final, Francesco Totti’s 97th minute penalty winning the quarter-final at the Stadio Olimpico 2-1 against Cesena.

Among the multitude of landmarks owned by the enduring Totti, that marked another. It was his first goal of 2017. He has now scored for Roma in each of 24 successive calendar years, since he first found the net as a 17-year-old against Foggia.

It is 12 months ago since Totti, who turned 40 in September, and Spalletti seemed to reach a breaking point in their long relationship. The Roma captain, leader and wearer of the club’s No 10 shirt for almost half his adult life gave a television interview in which he criticised Spalletti — the manager is now in his second spell with Roma — and, to widespread shock, hinted that he might consider playing elsewhere if his marginal situation at the club did not alter.

The threat to leave was whispered, but heard. In the 12 months since, Spalletti and Totti have moved towards a rapprochement. There is acknowledgement that, with a quarter of a century of elite football on his clock, and a history of damaging wear-and-tear on his knee joints, Totti is bound to spend much of his time on the bench. But coming off it, he has been influential. And in the Cups he can anticipate starts.

At the same time, Spalletti wants to preserve his team’s momentum, to keep his Roma perfecting what they do well. A tactical shift that has seen the energetic Radja Naingollan deployed as an attacking midfielder has worked effectively.

Naingollan’s two long-range goals against Inter drew comparisons with, well, comparisons with Totti in his prime, romanisti noting that not since Totti in 2005 had a Roma player scored twice in a match from outside the opposition penalty box.

Meanwhile, Edin Dzeko at centre-forward is in such a rich vein of form, resting him could be counter-productive. Spalletti, sensing that Dzeko, who struggled last season but has 19 goals in the league in 2016/17 so far, responds well to praise, said: “Edin knows how important he is to Roma.”

But, carefully, he paid tribute, too, to the last Roman to top the Serie A scoring list, 10 years ago. “If we are to compete at the top, we need players who are as good as Totti has been for us. If we don’t find the next Totti and leaders like him, then it will be hard for us to raise our game like we have to.”

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Updated: February 28, 2017 04:00 AM

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