On Saturday night Roma host Empoli. With Juventus travelling to third-placed Napoli on Sunday night, the clash with the struggling Tuscans is a great chance for the Giallorossi to either close the yawning gap between them and the Serie A leaders or cement their hold on second place, but in Rome that's been thrown to one side as everyone fixes their gaze on the one game that truly matters -- the Derby. Which this time might be a derby on and off the pitch.
"DERBY: THE TACTICS" screamed the front page of the Rome edition of the Corriere Dello Sport on Thursday, "Spalletti and Inzaghi already preparing the superclash."
Every manoeuvre for Saturday's match is being viewed through the prism of Tuesday night's Coppa Italia semifinal showdown, in which Roma try to salvage something from the wreckage of a dreadful past few weeks that has seen them booted out of the Europa league by Lyon, go eight points behind Juventus and left two goals down in the cup following an awful showing in the "away" leg nearly a month ago.
Derby anticipation has been heightened by the likely end of a long-standing fan boycott over security measures that for the best part of two seasons has left the Stadio Olimpico quieter than your average Premier League ground. On Wednesday, work began on the removal of barriers erected in the Curvas Sud and Nord in the summer of 2015, which split down the middle the areas where Roma and Lazio's hardcore Ultra supporters stand and removed hundreds of seats already paid for by season ticket holders.
In the absence of the rambunctious support the Ultras provide, crowds at Roma and Lazio have dropped like a suppli straight out of the fryer. But with the barriers gone, the hardcore are set to return, and they're bringing a lot of people back with them.
Romanisti and Laziali have been snapping up tickets for the Derby. Both curvas are sold out, and as of Friday morning a crowd of well over 50,000 looks likely. That's at least 20,000 more than both the pitiful number of spectators who showed up to the first leg and Roma's average gate of 28,000 -- as well as being nearly three times Lazio's 18,000 average attendance -- and that means Roma will have the one thing they've been without all season: bums (and feet) on seats and vocal backing.
With the return of the Ultras, so returns the fear of fan violence. Supporters have been warned that if there's any repeat of the (serious) hooliganism that has blighted the fixture in the past, the barriers could well go back up. What actually constitutes hooliganism for the authorities (fighting at the ground? Trouble elsewhere in the city during the day? Setting off flares? Rude banners? Sitting in someone else's seat?) has been kept purposefully vague, meaning that fans need to keep up the largely immaculate behaviour they've shown on the road if they want to continue supporting their team at home until the end of the season.
With the return of the support that he's begged for all season, Luciano Spalletti, who during the international break was roped into another controversy about the unsentimental manner he's handling Francesco Totti's "final" season as a Roma player, is preparing for Tuesday by gambling with his second string against Empoli. The Tuscan will likely take out four of his first choice lineup against Empoli ahead of Tuesday's showdown, with Daniele De Rossi -- whose feared hip fracture took him out early during Italy's 2-1 win against Netherlands in midweek -- Kostas Manolas, Emerson Palmieri and Edin Dzeko all being rested.
Suspended Kevin Strootman will be replaced by Clement Grenier, and Leandro Paredes, Juan Jesus, Mario Rui and Stephan El Shaarawy will step in for the other missing big names. Spalletti pulled a similar move at Palermo in preparation for their failed Europa League comeback against Lyon, a scrappy 3-1 win with the second string -- in which Grenier in particular showed himself a pretty capable backup -- leading to Roma's first XI dominating the Ligue 1 side and only just missing out on the quarterfinals.
Fourth bottom Empoli have lost six on the bounce (they have had to play Juventus, Napoli, Lazio and Inter in that run, it should be noted) and have a paltry 22 points, which would usually be enough to have them scrapping relegation. Instead the paucity of the sides in the bottom three has left Giovanni Martusciello's side seven points clear of the drop and with a very good chance of staying in Serie A.
Given the size of Roma's task on Tuesday -- they have to win by three against a Lazio side that is more robust than flamboyant Lyon -- and the weakness of the weekend's opposition, switching things up is the smart move. It could just keep Roma's season alive.