Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Glory in Rome: Remembering the two Scudetti that briefly saw Italy's capital rule the roost

It all came down to the final day of the season at the Stadio Olympico, just as it had done the previous year, and with the same anticipation in the air. But this time it was not Lazio but city rivals Roma who were on the verge of glory. There was a full house of 80,000 spectators and club officials said they could have sold out the stadium several times over.

For two seasons during which we crossed the into millennium the city Rome dominated Italian football. The end of the 2000/01 season saw Roma become Serie A champions winning the scudetto (championship) exactly one year after city rivals Lazio had taken the crown. Not for over 15 years had the scudetto landed in Rome and that had itself been only the third time the trophy had resided in the country's capital. Rome rarely ruled Italian football, but for one brief period at the turn of the century the country's capital city was also the country's capital of football.

2001 was in fact actually the third season in a row that the Stadio Olympico was involved in a title race that went down to the final round of fixtures. Our story starts on the last day of 1998/99 season when a Lazio side who had just won the the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup lost out on the title by a single point. A Marcelo Salas double saw Lazio defeat Parma, but unfortunately winning the title was out of their hands and they needed title challengers AC Milan to slip up. Instead Milan won at Perugia.

Lazio were managed by a Swedish coach named Sven-Goran Eriksson who had joined from Sampdoria in 1997, and having missed out on what would have been the second scudetto in the clubs history, some 25 years after their previous success, he was more determined than ever for his side to win the championship when the 1999/00 season began. Despite losing star striker Christian Vieri, Eriksson did not panic, and promptly brought in Fabrizio Ravanelli a man of many years experience, and the highly rated Argentinian Juan Sebastián Verón.

Lazio started the new season beating Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup, whilst also winning the first three of their opening four league games, and drew 4-4 with last season's title rivals Milan in the game number five.

The Biancocelesti (white and sky blues) as they are nicknamed were actually undefeated in their first nine games but then they faced arch rivals Roma in capital city derby and promptly suffered a rude awakening with a 4-1 defeat.

Lazio had 8 wins out of their next 16 matches culminating with the club nine points behind league leaders Juventus after a shock defeat against Verona in late March. Lazio's fortunes however then began to improve, Juventus went and lost to Milan whilst the following day Lazio made up for the earlier defeat against city rivals Roma with a massively important 2-1 win against their arch nemesis. Vincenzo Montella put Roma ahead early on but a Pavel Nedved equaliser on 25 minutes was shortly followed by a stunning free-kick from Veron which was to settle the match well before half-time.
With Juventus' lead cut to six points, Lazio had the chance to cut it even further when the sides met a week later at the Stadio Delle Alpi. The likes Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and Alessandro Del Piero could not break the Lazio defence and the game was separated a Diego Simeone header for the visitors. It looked like we were going to be in for another fascinating title race, but could Lazio avenge last season's final day despair?

Two weeks after that famous win in Turin a last gasp Gabriel Batistuta free-kick saw Lazio drop two points at Fiorentina, but three straight victories on the bounce combined a stunning 2-0 defeat at Verona for Juventus kept Lazio well in the race. There was then outrage when a last gasp equaliser was ruled out for Parma in Juventus' penultimate game of the season, and non more so than from Lazio owner Sergio Cragnotti who exclaimed "no one is able to explain why that goal wasn’t allowed". Head of  the Cirio food conglomerate, Cragnotti had invested heavily in Lazio and was devastated by what he saw as another title cruelly lost. With Lazio two points behind 'The Old Lady' as Juve are known, the chances of Lazio winning a the scudetto looked rather slim.

When Lazio lost out on the title a year earlier, it was Milan's win over Perugia that condemned Lazio to second place and year Perugia would again play a huge part in the title race with Juve travelling their on the final day hoping to pip Lazio to the title.

With Lazio overcoming Reggina 3-0 at the Stadio Olympico, all eyes turned to Perugia and a game delayed by 80 minutes because of heavy rain. Perugia took the lead early in the second-half with 33-year-old centre-back Alessandro Calori volleying into the bottom left hand corner. Try as the might Juve couldn't find an equaliser and in the most improbable of circumstances Lazio were champions. One year on from that final day despair and fans ran onto the Stadio Olympico pitch in celebration. The championship was back in the Rome for the first time in over 15 years, and back in the hands of Lazio for the first time in over a quarter of a century.

Four days later a 0-0 draw away at Internazionale saw a 2-1 aggregate win for Lazio and a Coppa Italia success that meant they had completed a historic double. Rome really was king.


After that famous double things went downhill for Lazio, within a year Eriksson had left for England, important defender Alessandro Nesta departed for Milan, Veron ended up a Manchester United, and although Lazio have not came anywhere near the title since, the following season still managed to see the scudetto stay in Rome, in fact did not even leave the Stadio Olympico.

Lazio share their stadium with city rivals AS Roma and Roma ended the 1999/00 season looking enviously across at their flatmates Lazio. If anything that must have spurred them on as a Roma side led by captain and boyhood supporter Fracesco Totti won their first three games of the following season scoring 9 goals in the process.

Despite losing their fourth game away at Internazionale, the Giallorossi (yellow-reds) went unbtean for 10 league games including 7 wins, one of which was a 1-0 win over those city rivals Lazio that was followed by a 0-0 draw with Juventus 5 days later on 22 December. Roma were by this point comfortably clear at the top of the league with Juventus some way behind in second.

A 3-2 defeat away at Milan almost a month later was followed by seven straight wins and Roma were flying. After the Roma draw Juventus were still just about keeping up the pace however with 8 wins in 10, although they then lost 4-1 away at Lazio in the middle of March.

Roma lost 3-1 away at Fiorentina in April, whilst Juventus mostly kept on winning and Roma drew 5 out of their next 8 to surprisingly go into the final game of the season just 2 points ahead of Juve. They had exepcted to have the title wrapped well before this. Things could have been worse however as an injury time Vincenzo Montella equaliser had salvaged a draw at Juventus on May 6, a game which had they lost would have gave Juventus an advantage in the title race.

Roma faced Parma knowing victory would secure them the scudetto and the 80,000 inside the Stadio Olympico breathed a huge sigh of relief when on 19 minutes Francesco Totti gave the home side the lead. Just before half time they found themselves 2-0 up through Vincenzo Montella whilst a brilliant individual effort from Gabriel Batistuta on 78 minutes made it 3. Parma pulled on back soon afterwards but at 3-1 the outcome was never in doubt and Parma's goal was shortly followed was a pitch invasion with euphoric scenes stopping the match for 20 minutes. Eventually the game was completed and Roma were as Corriere dello Sport exclaimed the following day 'Champions of Italy'.


"It was the hardest scudetto, the championship never ended. It took a record to win it " claimed then Roma manager Fabio Capello, so hard that Roma have not managed to win it since.

Like Lazio, Roma have spent most of the years since that title as also rans, with only a few second placed finishes the closest they've came to any real success since. When it comes to football Italy's capital city may not have seen much success over the years, but for one shorts spell at the beginning of noughties it definitely ruled the roost in Italian soccer.

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