The Sarri era finally takes flight as Lazio seize moment for derby delight

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<span>Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP

Maurizio Sarri looked at the eagle perched on his wrist and started to laugh. Olimpia, Lazio’s club mascot of the past 11 years, is quite a presence up close: a 12kg bird of prey with a two-and-a-half-metre wingspan. He realised quickly that one arm wasn’t going to manage it, bringing across the other one to support her weight and glancing up toward the Curva. Thousands of fans were packed in there, lost in delirious celebration.

OK, so maybe the Rome derby was a bigger deal than Sangiovannese v Montevarchi after all.

He had introduced the comparison at his pre-match press conference, insisting that he felt more pressure back when leading the first of those clubs against their local rivals in Serie C. A bluff, perhaps, but so typically Sarri. Even with a Serie A title and a Europa League win under his belt, the former Juventus and Chelsea manager continues to define himself by his less glamorous roots.

The contrast between Sarri and his Roma counterpart, José Mourinho, had set the tone for this season’s first Derby della Capitale. Both were new appointments this summer, yet despite some shared history – neither played professionally and each has coached at Stamford Bridge – their public identities could hardly be more different.

Related: European roundup: Dybala scores in Juventus win but leaves pitch in tears

Mourinho’s brand is international, a league winner in Spain, England, Portugal and Italy, as well as a two-time champion of Europe – even if those triumphs can feel distant, after disappointing recent stints at Manchester United and Tottenham. His return to Serie A was front-page news, relegating Inter’s title win to second billing.

Sarri’s appointment at Lazio was received positively by the club’s fanbase but with nothing like such fanfare. Hardly surprising: his achievements look modest by comparison with Mourinho’s, even if Juventus’s Massimiliano Allegri might be the only other current Serie A manager with a more impressive set of silverware.

Where Roma hit the ground running under their new manager – winning six consecutive matches between Serie A and the Europa Conference League – Lazio had seemed less sure of their footing during the first part of this campaign. They thrashed Spezia 6-1 in Sarri’s second game but then barely showed up during back-to-back defeats against Milan and Galatasaray.

Theirs was a more delicate transition, after five successful years under Simone Inzaghi. Roma splashed close to €100m transforming their squad to accommodate Mourinho’s vision, but Lazio spent little more than 10% of that on transfer fees this summer – making only small tweaks to a group that had found success playing a very specific brand of fast-break football.

Sarri, famously, prefers a different approach, focused on possession and building pressure from the front. After a draw with Torino on Tuesday left Lazio lagging behind Serie A’s early front runners, with eight points from five games, the striker Ciro Immobile lamented the challenge of taking on so much change at a time when the fixture list is unrelenting.

The manager himself acknowledged that struggle at his press conference on the eve of the derby. “The players are more caught up thinking about the movements they need to make than about playing football,” said Sarri. “This can block you for a moment … Our percentage of successful passes is not that of a team that wants to stay high up the table.”

Perhaps they only needed the pressure of a derby to clear that blockage out of their system. There was nothing inhibited in the buildup to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s 10th-minute opener.

After Luiz Felipe played the ball forward, the Serbian linked up with Immobile and Felipe Anderson to create the sort of passing triangle for which Sarri’s best teams have been famous. It ended with a floated cross from the Brazilian, which Milinkovic-Savic headed beyond Rui Patrício right before being clotheslined by the keeper.

It was 2-0 by the 20th minute. Lazio’s second felt more like something from the Inzaghi playbook: a rapid break out of their own half, led by Immobile, who spread the ball across for Pedro to side-foot an excellent finish into the bottom corner.

What a moment this would have been to decide a derby. Pedro had scored Roma’s final goal against Lazio during their previous meeting, back in May, before being deemed surplus to requirements. After being forced to train apart from the Giallorosso first-team this summer, he had jumped at the chance to switch sides and work again with Sarri – who he knew from time shared at Chelsea.

Pedro is just the third player ever to score on both sides of this fixture. But his goal was not the defining one. Roma got back in contention with a header by Ibañez on the stroke of half-time. Lazio restored their lead through Felipe Anderson after another break-away led by Immobile. Jordan Veretout cut into their advantage again with penalty 20 minutes from time, but it was not enough. The game finished 3-2 to the Biancocelesti.

At full-time, Mourinho would tell the story of a grand injustice against his team. Elseid Hysaj had appeared to foul Nicolò Zaniolo in the Lazio penalty box at the start of the move that led to Pedro’s goal, barging through the back of the Roma player. Another referee would also have shown Lucas Leiva a second yellow card for his challenge on Henrikh Mkhitaryan soon after the interval.

The latter incident was only made more grievous, for Mourinho, by the fact that he had been made to do without his captain, Lorenzo Pellegrini, following a soft double-booking in midweek. Revisiting each of the incidents, you could certainly make a case that these were all valid complaints. As a counterbalance, we might also observe that the penalty Roma did get on Sunday sat somewhere between “soft” and “ought to have been a free-kick the other way”.

In any case, the decisions went the way that they went. As the familiar saying goes in Rome: “You don’t play a derby, you win it.”

Genoa 3-3 Verona, Internazionale 2-2 Atalanta, Spezia 1-2 Milan, Napoli 2-0 Cagliari, Lazio 3-2 Roma, Udinese 0-1 Fiorentina, Sassuolo 1-0 Salernitana, Empoli 4-2 Bologna, Juventus 3-2 Sampdoria.

The glory on Sunday belonged to Lazio, and perhaps especially to Sarri. His work ethic had not gone unnoticed, with local media reporting that he has barely left the club’s Formello training ground since he arrived, sleeping in a room at the facility and even skipping off-campus meals arranged by his coaching staff. Yet this win alone will buy him more credit with supporters than all of his hard graft had achieved to date.

Little wonder that he should look on Olimpia with such delight, as they shared their moment beneath the Curva on Sunday night. “She sleeps behind my room at Formello,” he said afterwards. “I hear her singing sometimes. So It was right that we had a chance to celebrate together.”

Pos

Team

P

GD

Pts

1

Napoli

6

14

18

2

AC Milan

6

9

16

3

Inter Milan

6

13

14

4

Roma

6

6

12

5

Fiorentina

6

0

12

6

Lazio

6

6

11

7

Atalanta

6

2

11

8

Empoli

6

-1

9

9

Juventus

6

0

8

10

Bologna

6

-5

8

11

Torino

5

3

7

12

Sassuolo

6

-1

7

13

Udinese

6

-2

7

14

Verona

6

-3

5

15

Sampdoria

6

-3

5

16

Genoa

6

-5

5

17

Spezia

6

-7

4

18

Venezia

5

-7

3

19

Cagliari

6

-8

2

20

Salernitana

6

-11

1

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