"I've been waiting for this game ever since I got the Lazio job," Simone Inzaghi confessed. It's easy to imagine when the fixture list was published in those last days of summer that the first date he circled on his office calendar was Sunday, Dec. 4: Derby day in the Eternal City.
It's the first game both managers look out for on either side of this rivalry because very often in the history of the Derby della Capitale it decides whether their season has been a success or failure. Inzaghi isn't Roman by birth. He and his brother Filippo were brought up in Piacenza in the north west. But "Simo" moved to the Eternal City 17 years ago and it has been his home ever since.
He played in this rivalry without scoring in it, which is something of an anomaly for Lazio's all-time top scorer in Europe. His part in a 2-1 win in March, 2000, however, reserved a place for him in the hearts of Lazio fans forever. Inzaghi won the free kick that led to Juan Sebastian Veron's equaliser and later set up Pavel Nedved's winner. That victory proved to be decisive later on as Lazio kept chase with Juventus, overtaking them on the final day to win their first Scudetto in more than quarter of a century.
Luciano Spalletti also has his own very special place in derby folklore. Under the charismatic Tuscan, Roma established a new Serie A record winning streak on Feb. 26, 2006. To the delight of their fans and the despair of Lazio's, the landmark win, an 11th in a row, arrived against their cousins and was dedicated to injured captain Francesco Totti, who had undergone surgery to fit a steel plate secured by 10 screws to the fractured ankle he suffered against Empoli the previous Sunday. Not only did Totti come back and win the World Cup that year, he is still making a difference 10 years later aged 40.
The latest chapter in this rivalry ended 4-1 to Roma in April. Spalletti returned to haunt Lazio in his first derby following five years away in Russia managing Zenit St Petersburg and a two-year hiatus. It's the biggest defeat Lazio have suffered in the derby since 2002 -- the one where Vincenzo Montella scored four, completing a hat trick before half-time that left Alessandro Nesta seeing stars. Remarkably the Lazio captain, one of the finest centre-backs of his generation, didn't emerge for the second half. Maybe it was for the best as Totti produced a trademark cucchiaio, lobbing goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi from outside the area.
Of course, without that defeat in April, Inzaghi perhaps wouldn't be where he is now. Stefano Pioli was sacked after that game and Inzaghi promoted in his place. He acted as caretaker until the end of the season and could be forgiven for thinking he had done enough to earn the job on a permanent basis. Lazio went for Marcelo Bielsa instead. A contract was signed but El Loco lived up to his name, refusing to board a plane from Buenos Aires on the basis that the club had gone back on their promises.
Relaxing on a beach in Formentera, Inzaghi received a phone call: "Simo, we want you back." He caught the next flight out. After all the excitement about Bielsa and irrespective of all the good-will towards Inzaghi, this was Lazio as usual. Expectations were low. There was little to no enthusiasm. But as Sunday's derby approaches, take a look at the table. Lazio are fourth. All that separates them from Roma -- and Milan -- is a solitary point. It seems missing out on Bielsa was a blessing in disguise.
This is Lazio's best start since Roberto Mancini was at the helm in 2003. They are nine games without defeat in Serie A; only Real Madrid, RB Leipzig, Hoffenheim and Liverpool currently find themselves on longer unbeaten streaks in Europe's top five leagues. Who saw that coming? Inzaghi and his team are deserving of more credit and coverage than they have received even within Italy. The Eagles have flown under the radar.
People forget that with the exception of Antonio Candreva and Miroslav Klose, this is a team that qualified for the Champions League preliminaries the season before last. Inzaghi has coped better with the frequent absences of star defender Stefan de Vrij and captain Lucas Biglia than Pioli did. On the one hand, it's down to Lazio's recruitment. Bastos and Wallace, for instance, have added much needed depth and quality at centre-back. On the other, it's down to the structure Inzaghi has given the team.
Up front, Brazil Olympic gold medalist Felipe Anderson is recapturing the blistering form he showed in 2015. Girona-born Keita Balde Diao was on stage with Gerard Pique this week receiving the Most Promising Player award from the Catalan Football Federation and Ciro Immobile looks like the striker who finished Capocannoniere (Serie A top scorer) two seasons ago. Without a goal for a month, he has promised teammate Marco Parolo a brace at the weekend.
If Roma envy anything at all about Lazio, however, it won't be their firepower. Around Europe, only Monaco (44) and Real Madrid (36) have scored more goals. It's their most prolific season since 1934-35. And Spalletti has worked a minor miracle with Edin Dzeko. Nicknamed Cieco last season -- the Italian for blind -- the Bosnian can see again. His goals at the weekend were his 16th and 17th of the campaign.
Only Lionel Messi (19) and Edinson Cavani (19) have found the back of the net more often. With Mohamed Salah now a doubt for Sunday's game, the responsibility on Dzeko's shoulders will be even greater. He struck in both derbies last term and appears to raise his game on occasions like these. His record in the Manchester derby for instance was four goals in six league meetings.
More spectacular than Lazio, if there is one thing Roma would perhaps like to take from their rivals it is their balance. Roma have this tendency to blow teams away, think it's all too easy, go to sleep and find, to their horror, that they're no longer in the lead. Porto, Cagliari, Viktoria Plzen and Austria Vienna have all come back to get something out of games where Roma led. Pescara almost did at the weekend. The "two points dropped" at Cagliari and Empoli explain the four-point gap separating them from leaders Juventus at the moment.
No such lapses in concentration should afflict them on Sunday. It's the derby for Pete's sake. If there are Lazio will punish them. Anderson and Keita will fancy themselves against Roma's full-backs, which Spalletti already appears to have considered given reports Antonio Rudiger will move out to the left of the defence.
With both teams doing so well, one would expect the Olimpico to be packing 70,000 fans again. Alas, protests at the plexiglass barriers dividing the ends behind the goals continue. Some of Lazio's ultras have vowed to return. Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi, all Romanistas and Romans, personally attended a get-together of Roma's hardcore this week to ask that they come back and fill the Curva Sud.
At the moment it looks like both clubs' open training sessions will have more atmosphere than the game itself. But the derby still promises to be spectacular on the pitch, even if, sadly, it isn't off it.