A game for Italy's romantics

In the city of Genoa, football occupies some picturesque sites. The pitches where Genoa CFC train reach out towards the Mediterranean from a handsome villa.

Domenico Criscito of Genoa, right, attempts to block a shot from Sampdoria's Italian international striker Giampaolo during last season's derby, in May, which Genoa, the home team, won 3-1 at Stadio Luigi Ferraris.
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In the city of Genoa, football occupies some picturesque sites. The pitches where Genoa CFC train reach out towards the Mediterranean from a handsome villa. In the town itself, the offices where Sampdoria do their business have beautiful frescoed walls and ceilings. At the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, the venue that brings the two football clubs of the port together, the ambiance can be much more raw. Today, derby day, there is much at stake, too.

It is some time since Genoa and Sampdoria shared such high status in Serie A. Back in September, they were first and second in the league. Those positions are now occupied with a routine inevitability by the big-name clubs of Milan and Turin, but Samp - as they are usually known - and Genoa remain very much in contention for a Champions League place next season. A win tonight over their neighbours would move Samp into the top three. A victory for Genoa would ease them up to joint fifth.

Outside the boundaries of a local rivalry, which is fierce and full of nuance, romantic neutrals in Italian football can find reasons to be cheerful about the happy fortunes of the port city, and a well of affection for both clubs. Sampdoria, some Genovese will insist, were the last true outsiders to win an Italian scudetto, a league championship, because since their 1991 triumph in what was then the strongest domestic league in the world, the prize had been shared only between the two grandees of the city of Milan, by Turin's Juventus and by the two main Rome clubs, both of whom ran up vast debts to finance the triumphs of 2000 and 2001.

By contrast, the 1991 Samp were a team who charmed audiences, with their telepathically effective strike force of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini. They even reached the European Cup final a year later. Genoa, meanwhile, are Italy's original champions, a club whose long and distinguished history has sometimes encouraged their fans to sneer at their neighbours as nouveaux riches. Genoa won the first Italian league in 1898. Only Inter, Juve and Milan have been Italian champions more often.

But these are boasts delivered in sepia. Genoa have not held the title since 1924. In some respects, they might consider themselves fortunate to still be around, let alone to be in the top flight. Even the older loyalists at the Luigi Ferraris today have known more profound lows than soaring highs. In the past 30 years, Genoa have spent their share of time in Serie B, from which they were last promoted in 2007, after 12 years outside the elite. Two years earlier they had been even worse off, relegated to the third tier after the Italian authorities saw sufficient evident that the final match of their 2004-05 campaign had been fixed, to ensure promotion from Serie B.

Fans rioted in the streets when Genoa were sentenced to Serie C1 for the misdemeanour. Genoa's recovery from that episode is to be admired. It has been done with considerable investment and, on Serie A's imbalanced salary scale, they are now among the top six payers. A high turnover of players has brought money in, and not the least of the feathers in head coach Gian Piero Gasperini's cap is that he has found the means to compensate for the regular departure of players who have been key to Genoa's rise since he took over three summers ago.

Goalscorers like Marco Boriello and Diego Milito have moved to AC and Inter Milan, Thiago Motta to Inter. In their places, Gasperini favoured hiring experienced campaigners like Hernan Crespo, Sergio Floccari and Emiliano Moretti to complement younger men like Salvatore Brochetti and Domenico Criscito, the defenders now very much in Azzurri coach Marcello Lippi's plans. As, indeed, are the Sampdoria players Angelo Palombo, the midfielder, and Giampaolo Pazzini, the striker for whom one goal today would take him to the top of the Serie A scorers.

For Lippi, the city of Genoa is a source of the rejuvenation his national squad need, although he will still not turn back to Sampdoria's favourite reformed rebel, Antonio Cassano. Cassano above all should enjoy today's derby stage. ihawkey@thenational.ae Genoa v Sampdoria, KO 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 1