Say hello to the two strangest, most intriguing teams in Serie A at the moment – both from the same city. Sampdoria are on the rise and at the centre of a media storm due to their inveigling attacking duo, that of Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano. The former just made it into the national team, the latter should have done the same according to every Italian entity with the faculty of speech. Genoa, for their own part, are riding so high that their own Coach seems to approach every post-game interview with a faint air of bewilderment about his face. Until last weekend the Grifoni were holding the fourth place and were half a step away from qualifying for the Champions League. They have since slid back into fifth, but only by one point and with lots of room for hope. If we consider that a qualification for the UEFA Cup would have been seen as an ambitious objective for the Genoa team at the beginning of this season, it becomes impossible to overstate Coach Gian Piero Gasperini’s success.
Of the two teams, Genoa is the strongest. No doubt the statement would give rise to a chorus of rival protests among the Samp fans, but there is no getting round it. The Grifoni simply possess an excellent equilibrium between their various departments, a fact which is especially noteworthy since the team plays in a fluid, risky 3-4-3 formation. They are coached by a man who is tactically intelligent and more than competent at managing his own men, and their individual players (the starters, at least) are of very high value. Several of them come from big teams and can boast terrific experience with the shirts they left behind (Domenico Criscito, Matteo Ferrari, Raffaele Palladino). Diego Milito is a thunderstorm of an offender himself. For all the envious cries to luck from the Sampdoria fans (and it is true that on several occasions this year Genoa have had circumstances on their side), the fact remains that the Grifoni were able to take the opportunities that fortune bestowed upon them. They were able to do so because they are an excellent team. The rest is crackle in the wind.
Sampdoria are not so much an excellent team as a mediocre one blessed with an excellent offence. Cassano needs no introduction – we may simply reiterate that he is the best Italian at this moment. Pazzini benefits a lot from his comrade’s game openers and assists, but he deserves some credit of his own for the sensation that he has been causing. His finishing skills and in-the-box movement are very impressive (for now), and it is a good thing that his exodus from Fiorentina has allowed them to flourish. As for the rest of the Blucerchiati, the midfield is a cavalcade of mediocrity which tries to compensate with numbers what it lacks in talent, especially when Angelo Palombo is absent, and the only strong name in defence is Hugo Armando Campagnaro. Their goalie, Luca Castellazzi, is especially overrated.
Speaking of Castellazzi, it would be only too easy for us to blame the man for the three goals he conceded against Cagliari last weekend and which bring the team to the derby with a rather muddied morale. We refrain from doing this because, for all the criticisms which can be directed to the Sampdoria goalkeeper, he was up against a very solid team. Cagliari has only picked up steam in the later stages of the league, but they have become a real force to be reckoned with. Juventus first, then Napoli fell to their threat from under the radar. Cagliari’s forward Robert Acquafresca bears at least as much promise as Pazzini, and the draw should not be seen as a disappoint by either squad. Sampdoria’s performance actually had several good things about it, starting from the ease with which they went two goals up, but it was more to their adversaries’ merit than to their own fault that they came inch-close to losing (before being saved, yet again, by one of Cassano’s miracles).
Sampdoria therefore walk into the derby with a spirit rather less energetic than they would like. Fortunately for them, Genoa find themselves in exactly the same quandary (or even worse), having been swatted 2-0 by modest Bologna. A true miracle of a result, that was – the Grifoni are incapable of not astonishing, even in their defeats. Paradoxically, the tepid results and low spirits of the two teams may make for yet another surprise and give us a deeply competitive match – both teams will be thinking of getting back on track and they will see the derby as the perfect opportunity to do so. Let us welcome the storm, then.
Gasperini will field Genoa in the usual 3-4-3, relying on central midfielder Thiago Motta to provide the invention necessary to activate the rest of his team. The left wing will be one to watch and, if well exploited, could easily prove key to the Grifoni’s victory. Domenico Criscito and Raffaele Palladino, the ex-Juventus duo, are fast and possess good feet. Indeed it is only physicality that they are lacking in, and that may not be enough of a weakness for wing-back Marius Stankevicius and centre-back Campagnaro to exploit (though it may leave some holes in Genoa’s lines when it comes to defending).
On the subject of physicality – Sampdoria have somewhat relinquished the very physical game that they played in the first half of the season and Coach Walter Mazzarri appears to have surrendered to the truth that Cassano is the only real artist in his team. As a consequence, their tactical game mostly consists of holding the ball until Fantantonio comes and calls for it in central positions, then handing it over to him and seeing what happens. The team orbits around him like dust around a star, and that is perfectly well – no other disposition could make of Sampdoria a mightier team. When playing defensively, on the other hand, Sampdoria will likely revert to their old habits – run after anyone with the ball and beat them like blacksmiths. It may be the only way to stop Milito and his lads. As for Genoa’s defensive game, mostly it will consist in the question of how to extinguish Cassano – a real fix, since Genoa’s men are not very apt to defending the soft spot between their own midfield and defence. A possible solution, and one they have used before with a certain degree of success, would be to have the line of defence play very advanced. While this could reduce Cassano’s holding possession, it will make them even more vulnerable to his cutting assists on the counter. Gasperini will probably have to adapt his tactics as the game progresses, finding out on his own skin which alternative is the least dangerous.
A lot hangs on individual performances. Genoa is a better team in terms of individual players, and they are much better organised on the pitch. But Milito has appeared a little opaque in the last few days, while Cassano is so volcanic that if he were a cartoon character he would probably be a Red Bull advertisement. Both these players, and a handful of the others we mentioned, have the possibility of making or breaking the game. If there ever was a time when oracles who specialise in tactics ought to be silent, then this has got to be it.