x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Two old cities go to battle

Explosive rivalry has added to the duel between Mourinho and Ranieri.

Inter's young Ghanian-born forward Mario Balotelli, right, was abused by some Roma fans last season.
Inter's young Ghanian-born forward Mario Balotelli, right, was abused by some Roma fans last season.

The city of Rome today takes on the metropolis of Milan twice in Serie A. That is a lot of enmity to squeeze into the space of a few hours. Between the two cities, little love is lost on the field, and while it would not be quite true to say that Milan fans will be rooting for Inter to win tonight, nor that Roma supporters will be backing Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico against Milan, there is a general wariness felt by the capital towards Lombardy and vice-versa.

Rome harbours a suspicion that the north pulls all the strings in the running of Italian football. The Milanese sneer at the unsophisticated upstarts from the south. Many of those tensions were vividly displayed last March, when Roma came to San Siro and very nearly dealt a serious puncture to Inter's march on the title. To recap: Roma went 2-0 up that night, and by the time a series of see-saws in fortunes and controversies had passed, ended up drawing 3-3.

By four days later, Inter's head coach Jose Mourinho, his teenage striker, Mario Balotelli and Roma's pugnacious midfielder Daniele De Rossi were all being hauled before a league disciplinary hearing for their behaviour on that fiery evening. Roma were also fined for the insults directed by their travelling fans in the direction of Balotelli. The leftovers from that, Roma's last visit to Inter, certainly leave a stamp on tonight's reunion at the Giuseppe Meazza.

Balotelli can expect particular targeting from the visiting supporters, mindful of his gesture towards them last March after he had scored the penalty to bring Inter back into the contest: he cupped a hand to his ear. The migrants between the two clubs of recent years will also get a special reception. Inter's Christian Chivu, Walter Samuel and Mancini are former Roma players; Nicolas Burdisso and David Pizarro were once of Inter.

The enmity has, if anything, intensified in recent years, acknowledgement that in the post-2006 period that Juventus and Milan were serving punishments for their parts in the calciopoli scandals, Inter and Roma were first and second in the Serie A hierarchy. Inter are still first alright, but the Roma they host this evening began the weekend 13 places below the league leaders in the table. To all this tinder, an explosive fixture can now add the gunpowder of the personal rivalry between the two head coaches.

One detail that might be recalled from last season's Inter-Roma clash is how the garrulous Mourinho launched an attack on Juventus in the aftermath, claiming they continued to enjoy refereeing bias. Juventus at that stage were genuinely pursuing Inter at the top of Serie A. And Juventus at that stage were coached by one Claudio Ranieri. That is the same Claudio Ranieri now in charge of Roma. The same Claudio Ranieri against whom Mourinho has cultivated a sniping, provocative and not always very light-hearted dialogue through the media since he arrived in Italy. The two have history, of course, Mourinho being the manager who succeeded Ranieri as manager of Chelsea in the English Premier League.

Mourinho seldom wastes an opportunity to remind Italy that he, the younger man, exceeded Ranieri's achievements at Chelsea. He once added, to the press, how much better he had learned English than Ranieri, and exaggerated how much younger he was than Ranieri, whom he cheekily said was not in his mid-50s, but his early-70s. All water off a duck's back, insists Ranieri. "Some managers think it's more normal not to try to offend one another," he remarks.

"But things are alright between me and Jose, and I know him very well. When he speaks out, it's because he wants to charge up his players, get them fighting. He's done a great job with Inter." Ranieri is still trying to do one with Roma, where he has been in the job just two months. Victories after going a goal down in the last two games, against Bologna and Fulham, suggest he has at least rediscovered some spirit, after a lax run of form that had fans protesting outside the Roma practice ground.

Roma could be worse off. They could be Lazio, who entertain a buoyant Milan this afternoon on the heels of a chastening 4-1 defeat in the Europa League thrashing at Villarreal in Spain. Lazio followers have been besieging Formello, where the Rome club train, and will continue to do so while their club sit so close to the Serie A relegation zone. @Email:ihawkey@thenational.ae Inter v Roma, KO 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 1