Sampdoria vs. Genoa
It hasn’t been much fun being a Genoese football fan over the last few years. Both Sampdoria and Genoa were once giants of calcio, though have recently fallen upon harder times. Samp slid to an embarrassing relegation to Serie B in 2011, just a season after qualifying for the Champions League. Genoa fans took particular delight in their rival’s demise, parading a blue coffin through the streets of their historic city, though were nearly left red-faced as they only survived the drop themselves by a single place in the two subsequent seasons.
However, Samp bounced back from relegation within a season and Genoa managed to stay in Serie A by the skin of their teeth. Now, they have both weathered the worst of the Ligurian storm and are on the up once again. Saturday’s Derby della Lanterna (named so after the famous Lighthouse, or ‘Lanterna’ of Genoa) sees these sides clash with Genoese football in ruder health than it has been for many years.
It’s no coincidence that the teams’ turnarounds both coincided with the arrival of new managers. Siniša Mihajlović rocked up at Sampdoria in November 2013 with the blucerchiati struggling near the bottom of the table; skip to the end of the season and his direct, aggressive game had seen his side battle to a comfortable mid-table spot. Gian Piero Gasperini had returned to Genoa (whom he led to Europe in impressive four-year stint to 2010) a couple of months earlier, replacing Fabio Liverani who had failed to win a single game. His exciting, attack-minded 3-4-3 drew the best from a ragtag bunch of players, and they too finished comfortably above the bottom three.
Heading into this weekend’s clash, these sides are going even better. They’re level on points in the table, with only tiebreakers keeping Genoa above Samp in an impressive sixth place. But while Gasperini’s side have been picking points up regularly throughout the season, Samp have been rather patchier; they head into this match having not won in their last five, and suffered a heavy 5-1 defeat away at Torino. They’ll be hoping that the old cliché about form getting lost in the smoke and flares of derby games proves true.
The good news for Samp supporters is that if there’s one man who can get his players fired up for big matches, it’s Mihajlović. He’s not one from shying away from big calls and extravagant speeches, having quoted everyone from Dante to JFK in press conferences since taking charge. In a derby that routinely produces some of Serie A’s most dramatic scenes, Mihajlović could once again prove to be the star of the show.
Deportivo La Coruña vs. Celta Vigo
"O Noso Derbi" might be the best derby you've never heard about. Or perhaps not. Perhaps you're well-versed in regional Spanish derbies. But considering "Our Derby", between Deportivo de La Coruña and Celta de Vigo, has been a rather intermittent occurrence in La Liga over the past decade, it's ok to admit that you know nothing of its existence.
This weekend's edition has a chance to be rather special, however. Depor, freshly promoted, had a tough time of it early in the season, flirting rather heavily with the relegation zone. But despite getting their hearts broken at Real Madrid on Valentine's Day, they've managed to lift themselves five points clear of danger. Celta, meanwhile, are 9th, exactly where they finished last season. Having spent the early weeks of the season looking like European contenders, Celta will now want to build on last week's surprising 2-0 victory over Atlético Madrid.
But the hosts go into this game with revenge on their minds. Last time out Celta held a 2-1 lead going into the 88th minute, when Depor earned themselves a penalty. But somehow Sergio Álvarez, previously Celta's backup keeper, managed to push the spot kick around the post, earning his side a precious victory.
And revenge can be what pushes a derby from "classic" on over into "madness". The Galician Derby already has the right mix of ingredients: passionate fans (who cares if it's scheduled for 10 p.m.; this is Spain), racing hearts, players eager to prove a point. When a side wants to avenge their loss from last time -- even if that loss was their own fault -- suddenly the dial is turned to 11. The supporters are louder and more rowdy, the players are more willing to bare their teeth, and everyone's prepared to sling a little mud.
It'd be foolish to believe this match will guarantee entertainment. Neither side averages more than one goal per game, and considering Celta are rather stingy about giving them up, we're unlikely to see a six-goal blowout. But is that really why we watch derbies? No. We watch derbies in hopes of seeing red cards handed out like candy and (non-injurious) flares lighting up the stands. Go on, add another to your list.
Southampton vs. Liverpool
Who likes narrative? You like narrative! Oh yes you do! And do we have a gargantuan bowl of thick, creamy narrative for you. Go on, dive in! Rub it on your face! Lick it off your hands! Stick your head in it … there you go! Yummy, goopy narrative, still warm, piped fresh from the Premier League's heaving udders. You love it.
While you're polishing that off, let's set the scene. You'll recall that Liverpool spent most of the summer buying Southampton players: Ian Ayre riding his Harley Davidson down to the south coast; Ian Ayre leaving 50 million quid in nonsequential fivers outside St Mary's; Ian Ayre piling Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert into his sidecar. Asked at the time if he felt any sympathy for the poor, asset-stripped Saints, Brendan Rodgers was very clear:
"They have a choice as a club. They don't have to sell. You have a choice. Maybe Southampton's objectives have changed. They were looking to be a Champions League club, I believe. They obviously wanted to change ... I don't have sympathy, no."
Oh, Brendan. Hubris tends to have consequences, and in a funny sort of way, Liverpool and Southampton have ended up having one another's ideal seasons. Liverpool, though they're a club that has to pretend that they're going to win the league no matter what the circumstances, would likely have been absolutely fine with sitting fourth after 25 games in a post-Luis Suárez, post-slip world. And Southampton, likewise, would almost certainly have accepted seventh position at this stage, just four points back from Liverpool, given the departure of half their first-team and their manager.
But while the results of Liverpool's triple-swoop have been … let's say mixed, for the sake of staying polite, Southampton have made good use of the mountains of cash. Almost every player brought in over the summer has made a positive contribution, an almost unheard of achievement. Their refusal to know their place has been admirable, and their season has made steady progress from patronising head-patting -- well done Ronald! You're not a complete buffoon! -- through surprised acceptance -- I say, this Ronald fellow really does seem to know what he's doing -- and has now finally reached a point where Saints are simply A Good Team. One to be respected. One, perhaps, to be feared a little bit.
Though obviously, football being what it is, they arrive at this crucial game and this crucial point of the season in indifferent form. Graziano Pellè's goals have dried up, and their last three performances have been disappointing: a home loss to Swansea City, a last-minute winner to squeak past QPR, and then a limp nil-all home draw with West Ham. It's certainly not a slump, and it's barely even a stutter, but it's definitely a hiccup.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have put their miserable autumn behind them and let the fun back into their lives; Rodgers has been managing hard. Lovren's been discarded, along with Javier Manquillo and the concept of fullbacks, while the estimable Emre Can has been reinvented as a defender and elevated to cult hero status. Daniel Sturridge is back from the treatment room for now -- though Raheem Sterling has been struggling with a foot injury -- and Liverpool's new 3-a couple-the rest formation has restored their pace and edge.
Even Mario Balotelli is doing things: scoring a goal against Tottenham, making another one against Crystal Palace, possibly even smiling. According to Rodgers "the penny has dropped" for the Italian, who is working hard in training and hasn't done anything kkeerraazzyy for ages. (No, taking a penalty doesn't count.) While their recent run of good form hasn't taken in too many strong opponents, and while the absence of Lucas Leiva will be a blow, the 3-2 win over Spurs certainly felt like a club re-asserting its ability to cause problems for anybody.
On form, then, you'd perhaps give Liverpool the edge, particularly if the excellent Morgan Schneiderlin fails to recover from injury. But taking a broader view, Southampton have one advantage over their opponents and the majority of the other clubs chasing the top four, in that they don't have to contend with midweek European games. Liverpool will bounce into Sunday's game off the back of a Thursday night game against Besiktas, and Rodgers is making all the right noises about respecting the Europa League. At some point, rotation is going to have creep back into Rodgers' mind. At some point, he may have to pick Lovren again.
So we've got: two teams fighting over the same league positions; underachieving but in-form visitors who look a danger to anybody, including themselves; overachieving hosts at risk of derailing their season; a couple of players returning to the club that made them; a maverick talent discovering some form; Dušan Tadić; Philippe Coutinho; Ronald Koeman's curious haircut; and the tantalising possibility of a bit more nemesis being heaped on to Brendan Rodgers' shoulders. What more could you want from a Sunday afternoon? What more could you want from the Premier League. Oh! Er … you've got a bit of narrative behind your ear. Let me … there you go. All gone!