Arguably the biggest game this weekend is the Derby della Sicilia, a matter of local and nationalistic pride as Champions League chasing Palermo visit recently reinvigorated island rivals Catania.
In his pre-match words of wisdom, Elefanti coach Sinisa Mihajlovic has compared the encounter to the ferocious derbies he played as a player in Rome and Belgrade, a testament to the ferocity of the occasion and, despite the absence of visiting Rossanero fans due to fears of crowd violence, the atmosphere should be red-hot in a sun-drenched Sicily.
Palermo come into the match in fourth spot with a neat three point lead over their Champions League chasing contenders, and another win here would maintain that gap with just six games remaining. However, the visitors have failed to beat their hosts in the last three match-ups, and have yet to live down the 4-0 humbling the Rossazzuri dished out at the Renzo Barbera last season.
The rise of la Aquile is one that has been relatively surprising, but really shouldn’t have been. In the past four seasons the club have posted two fifth place finishes and enjoyed a couple of jollies into the UEFA Cup, although that form tailed off with slightly below-par finishes of eleventh and eighth in the last two campaigns. However, the astute appointment of Delio Rossi in the summer, aligned with some sharp investments and the progression of a well constructed squad has seen Palermo cement themselves as favourites to qualify for the continents top competition next year.
For the club, that qualification would mean huge strides in the immediate, short and long term evolution of the club. Having tailored an exciting group of players, a season’s hard work can be unravelled quickly if things go pear shaped from here. The likes of Simon Kjaer, Javier Pastore and Edison Cavani have all been attracting attention from clubs elsewhere and, although departures from an outfit the size of Palermo are regrettably inevitable, not only can the nucleus of this resource be kept together, but the invitation to players to compete in the Champions League can only further bolster the appeal of joining the Sicilians. The importance of reaching the holy grail of that fourth spot really cannot be underestimated.
However, quite willing to shatter those dreams are a resurgent Catania who have eased themselves away from the relegation zone since the arrival of Mihajlovic. The Serbian has not only tightened up a porous backline, but the side has flourished and delivered some excellent football in an expansive 4-3-3 formation. They narrowly lost at Napoli last time out, but recent wins over Inter and Fiorentina were no flukes, the Elefanti know the damage they can do to their neighbour’s season.
Unfortunately we cannot leave the game without recalling the incidents of this game three years ago, when a 40-year-old policeman was killed following riots between the rival groups of supporters after the game. These clashes, not to mention a host of other hooligan-related incidents on the Peninsula, led to the shut-down of Italian football for a couple of weeks, with all football matches, professional, amateur or otherwise, cancelled in the aftermath of the death. Let’s hope it is only the football which gets mentioned this weekend.
Quite happy not to let football hog the limelight is, once again, Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese pre-empted Inter’s quarter-final match with CSKA Moscow with an ill-timed blast at Italian football. Mourinho spoke openly when saying: “I am happy at Inter, I am not happy in Italian football. I don’t like it and they don’t like me.” And he wonders why?
It’s difficult to gauge the mindset of the Portuguese tactician. What was his aim? Was it a ploy to deflect attention away from his stuttering side? Or was it really a dissenting voice towards Calcio? If it was, the chances of seeing the Special One up and down Serie A touchlines again next season are rapidly evaporating.
These words came out directly before a crucial game, and one must wonder what psychological effect his actions had on the morale and togetherness of Mourinho’s squad. During vital run-ins in three competitions, all of which the Nerazzurri have aspirations of winning, the main dissenting voice is coming from their perceived leader. Certainly, Mourinho would have short tolerance if a player came forward to so publically and blatantly express his displeasure at the club. When unity is needed, where is the beacon? When calm is needed, why is Mourinho causing such deliberate disruption? His actions seem to have few benefits for anyone other than for himself and his agent. If he doesn’t like Italian football, he knows what he can do. Mourinho’s problem is that it isn’t just Italian football that doesn’t like him, he may just find that out sooner or later.
If those problems are to come a little further down the line, the more immediate ones are to be found in his side’s sluggish progress down the home straight. One league win in five has seen Roma come tearing down the blindside and, following last weekend’s 2-1 win for il Lupi over la Benemeata, all momentum is with the Romans. Inter need three points at home to Bologna this weekend to keep those dissenting voices at bay.