On This Day in History: 2001 (I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death)

One week earlier

It had been dubbed the Millennial derby; heavy-hitting Roma, on route for a coronation, played the reigning champions Lazio in perhaps the most hyped up Roman derby ever. It ended anti-climactic as Castroman scored an equalizing goal deep into injury time, Lazio setting off a small trepidation in the capital. Roma's lead in the league, previously thought near unassailable, had been curtailed. One week later Roma were to travel to Turin to play the contenders for the league title. Juventus would stand just three points off Roma's pace in case of victory; keeping Juve at bay was critical lest muscle memory should kick in for the more experienced Turin team. In between the Millennial derby and the Juventus game, an important rule change came into effect which allowed teams to nominate one more non-EU player on game day. The biggest single beneficiary was Hidetoshi Nakata, who hadn't even featured on the bench in four of the five games leading up to the Juventus game. And so the game began, with the following premises:

1. Roma 63
2. Juventus 57

Act I 
Minutes 1 through 60

It was as if Lazio's late goal a week earlier had shook Roma, and the Juventus game started much like the derby had ended: horribly. Within just six minutes Roma were already two goals down to a Juve that had come at them straight out of the gates, and Roma had severe problems getting back into contention. After an hour's play in which little had been accomplished for Roma, Nakata entered the game. He did so after watching Totti being closed down so effectively that he had virtually no impact at all on the game. He had been double teamed by Tacchinardi and a rotating cast of defenders and midfielders who allowed him neither time nor space. As he was kicked down and robbed of the space he usually finds, Totti grew frustrated. Nakata had been watching it all. Unlike many footballers today, for whom starting on the bench is an excuse to entertain each other as if nothing of interest was happening a few steps in front of them, Nakata really watched the game. He'd noticed something the rest of the team on the pitch hadn't picked up on in the heat of battle, a peculiarity to Tacchinardi's game. As Juventus's deeplying midfielder, Tacchinardi's position had helped shield Totti off from Roma's offense and effectively cut him out of the game. The downside to that important role was that ball retention became critical; if he lost the ball, Juve's defense would be left very vulnerable.

Act II
Minutes 60 through 91

Nakata had noticed from the bench that Tacchinardi repeatedly used that same move to get out of Roma's pressing during the game. Always to the same side, like clockwork. When given the opportunity he intercepted Tacchinardi's move and used the space now at his disposal; the Juve defense only had time to recognize the threat they were under before reacting was too late. Watching Juve's defenders double back in mild panic when Nakata won the ball brings to mind the expression of a fox in the hen-house. Only ten minutes remained at that point, and Nakata's cerebral approach to the game reinvigorated Roma and re-instilled a belief in that Juve could be kept at bay. Nakata later played a part in the equalizer as well, Montella (another substitute on the night) finishing the rebound of another of his thunderous shots. This too was done fully consciously: during his thirty or so minutes in the game Nakata tried five attempts from 20-25 meters, and as intercepting Tacchinardi's dribble it had been done with intent. Nakata's goal (clocked at 110 km/h) was, obviously, fantastic. The real highlight, however, is him studying his opponent and ruthlessly taking advantage. (Also worth mentioning are the runs Montella and Batistuta made after Nakata won the ball. Just look at how they by running at breakneck speed forces the defense to drop so low, it's quite intoxicating.)

Six weeks later

Roma won lo scudetto with a margin of two points.