The Europa League already has some extra lustre as it heads into the new year.
Culture clash adds to the excitement
The Europa League already has some extra lustre as it heads into the new year, and among the more compelling of the remaining debates over who will join the likes of former European champions such as Juventus, Benfica, Liverpool and Marseille in the knockout stages is tonight's contest between Genoa and Valencia.
The final Group B match has the flavour of a knockout tie already. The Italians must win to guarantee progress, the Spaniards risk elimination if they lose. That should be plenty to motivate. Not that Italian-Spanish clashes need of a stir to raise the mercury levels. These are football cultures that regard each other with a mixture of respect and suspicion. Spaniards caricature Italians as crabby, sneaky and conservative. Italians look upon their fellow Latins as volatile and showy. At least that is how the build up to such meetings often runs, as Valencia know all too well.
Just ask Hernan Crespo, the Genoa striker. Of the scores of European ties he has experienced in his years with Lazio, AC Milan and Inter Milan, tetchy meetings in the Champions League between Valencia and Inter would stand out in his memory for their edginess. Or ask Emiliano Moretti, the Genoa defender who spent several seasons at Valencia, where a love-hate relationship with Italian football has surfaced several times over the last decade.
Moretti and Crespo were there for a brawl between Valencia and Inter players after a Champions League encounter three seasons ago; Moretti was the one long-term Italian survivor of a group of compatriots who arrived at the club with the Italian coach Claudio Ranieri in 1997. As Valencia slumped, most, including Ranieri, left. Alberto Zapater is one Spaniard who moved the other way. He joined Genoa from La Liga's Real Zaragoza in the summer, and noted the differences immediately.
"Everything's different here in Italy," he says. "From the time- table to the pitches to the attitudes. Italian teams have a competitive mentality that they can switch on instantly." These are some of the impressions Zapater regularly shares with his friend David Villa, once a colleague at Zaragoza, and now with Valencia. In Spain, on matchday two of the Europa League, Valencia beat Genoa 3-2. Zapater is expecting an entertaining rematch.
"I think it will be a great evening for our fans. We know what we need from the game, and we also know that they may not have the biggest, strongest, attacking players but they have tremendous speed on the counter-attack, and obviously Villa is the epitome of that," said Zapater. Genoa, in other words are wary of Valencia catching them on the break - "a la Italiana" - as they say in Spain. firstname.lastname@example.org
Genoa v Valencia, KO 10pm, Aljazeera+3