By Adam Digby (@Adz77)
Despite protests from the Ultras on both sides causing both a vastly reduced attendance and a muted atmosphere, the Rome derby was always going to be a decisive fixture. The game passed without incident with AS Roma emerging 4-1 winners, but it would be Stefano Pioli who paid the ultimate price. Late on Sunday evening, the Lazio boss – having overseen yet another inept display from his team – was sacked by the club, serving a timely reminder of just how significant the clash remains for the entire city.
The Biancocelesti have opted to replace him with youth team boss and former striker Simone Inzaghi, yet a more tangible shift may have occurred across town. Following the final whistle at the Stadio Olimpico, images of a glum-looking Francesco Totti (who remained an unused substitute) surfaced, but the performance of those fielded in place of the veteran striker appear to signal a genuine see-change for the Giallorossi.
It is something that has bubbled under the surface all season. The issue manifested itself a few weeks ago when Totti spoke out about his lack of opportunities under Coach Luciano Spalletti, but the sight of fellow Rome-native Alessandro Florenzi grabbing the third goal would hammer home the point. While the older man is the all-time leading scorer in the Eternal City derby, the 25 year old – wearing the Captain’s armband – struck his first ever goal against Lazio in the 83rd minute.
However, outside of the Pioli firing, Florenzi’s moment of glory and the marginalisation of Totti, it is perhaps the scorer of the game’s opening goal that deserves most attention. With Roma already dominating proceedings over the opening 15 minutes, Lucas Digne strode forward and fired a cross into the Lazio box. Inexplicably unmarked, Stephan El Shaarawy will not have been gifted an easier chance since joining the Giallorossi from AS Monaco in January, but he took full advantage and netted a far post header.
Goalkeeper Federico Marchetti was powerless to prevent what marked the sixth goal in nine appearances for the former Milan forward, who went on to give an all-round impressive display. Taking two shots – both of which hit the target – the 23 year old completed the one take-on he attempted, made one tackle, recovered the ball five times and connected with all 21 of his passes.
“It was hugely emotional to score in a derby and win it like that, but now we must keep going along this path and not give up” he told reporters shortly after the game. “A goal in a derby has a special flavour, and it was the goal that opened the way. It was unforgettable.”
His current form is on par with the very best from his time at Milan, despite enjoying some largely indifferent spells in recent times. Born in the Ligurian town of Savona to an Egyptian father and Swiss-Italian mother, he progressed through the youth ranks at nearby Genoa and became one of the youngest players to ever feature in Serie A.
From there El Shaarawy would be loaned to second tier side Padova, winning the Serie B Player of the Year award before quickly joining the Rossoneri in a €20 million move. His first season at San Siro saw a few glimpses of his obvious talent, before he exploded in a spectacular second campaign to net sixteen times before the Winter Break.
The January arrival of Mario Balotelli saw El Shaarawy shifted out wide, with the latter adding just three more goals by the end of the season. From there he suffered with a string of injuries, making a mere six appearances in 2013/14 and 19 in the following campaign, Milan having clearly moved on when he was finally ready to return.
Last summer saw a shock move to AS Monaco, but he failed to make any real impact in the Principality and registered just two goals and one assist in 1080 minutes of action. The Ligue 1 club paid no fee for that initial loan, but they saw little reason to hand over the agreed sum of €14 million when El Shaarawy came within one appearance of triggering an automatic purchase clause.
Sent back to Milan, he was subsequently moved on again to Roma, where the appointment of Spalletti appears to have provided the missing spark for a player who clearly possesses immense potential. Willing to work diligently without the ball, he has repeatedly been called up to the Italian national team by Antonio Conte, telling reporters on Sunday that his aim “is to do well at Roma so I can play Euro 2016 as a protagonist.”
His sensational form with the Giallorossi – six goals and two assists in 687 minutes – makes that almost certain, although his club Coach continues to demand even more of the young forward. Labelling his derby showing as “exceptional,” Spalletti told Mediaset Premium that “Stephan needs to be more aggressive and never rest on his laurels.”
“El Shaarawy scored a goal, but he had three or four chances in which he thought he’d already scored and was not decisive,” the former Zenit St Petersburg boss continued, striving for the kind of perfection not demanded from the striker since his time under Max Allegri. The win over Lazio may have sparked talk of a push for second place, but the player also appears to echo that call for further improvement.
“I came here to provide a turning point to my career,” he said this week. “It’s a positive moment, but I have to continue like this, as there’s a long road ahead.” Spalletti certainly appears to have smoothed that path, as an injury-free Stephan El Shaarawy helps AS Roma navigate beyond the Francesco Totti era.