Forget El Clásico, forget the Madrid derby: everyone in Spain knows the craziest rivalry in the country is found in the south. With Real Betis and Sevilla more evenly matched than ever thanks to two brilliant managers and a summer of significant signings, the latest edition of the Seville derby promises to be the biggest yet.
The biggest emotion associated with the Seville derby as well as the city itself is passion – and for once in football, that isn’t a lazy cliché. It’s an emotion that the Andalusian capital naturally evokes, deeply rooted in the Seville blood, manifesting itself not only in football but also the famous Holy Week celebrations before Easter, visited by thousands of international tourists each year. Seville does passion and it does it big, with plenty of over the top expressions of emotion to make sure you know all about it.
There are countless examples of how that passion manifests itself when Betis and Sevilla meet. Open training sessions before the game are attended by thousands, the local sporting paper, Estadio Deportivo, will dedicate a number of front pages to the subject, and players will be reminded at every turn by local residents that this is a holy week of its own kind.
Elaborate banners complete with clever taunts of the opposition team are a guarantee. In theirs, Sevilla fans often like to point out their run of domestic and European success in the last 15 years (a record five Europa leagues, three of which were won back-to-back, as well as a UEFA Super Cup, a couple of Copa del Rey wins and a domestic Supercup since 2005). Betis – who are without a major trophy in 13 years – have to be more creative with theirs.
There are also examples of that passion going too far. The ugly side most infamously manifested itself when then Sevilla manager Juande Ramos was struck and knocked out by a bottle thrown from the stands in 2007, or the bizarre incident in 2002 when someone in the crowd hit a security guard with a crutch one of his friends had snuck in – the mind boggles.
Yet there is also room for beauty and brotherhood. When Sevilla’s academy graduate Antonio Puerta died at the age of 22 from a heart attack in 2007, Betis fans laid floral tributes, displayed banners in his honour, and some of the most moving videos you are ever likely to see involve people in green and white shirts consoling their tearful city rivals in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
On Sunday, at the Estadio Benito Villamarín in the south of the city – some four kilometres away from Sevilla’s Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, a significantly smaller ground, Betis fans will remind you – hostilities will resume after a summer of significant movement for both clubs.
During the Monchi era, Sevilla’s offices in Nervión boasted a reputation as one of Europe’s smartest in the transfer window. These days, since the arrival of sporting director Lorenzo Serra Ferrer in Heliópolis, that honour now arguably lies with Betis.
In the last 12 months he has pulled off a string of admirable signings. In January, he skilfully managed to lure Marc Bartra from Borussia Dortmund, a development that was key in making sure Betis fixed their defence and finished above Sevilla in sixth place last season. This summer, he landed William Carvalho – a player long coveted by Premier League clubs – for a bargain €20m. For a sweet sum of zero in transfer fees he also captured former Real Madrid man Sergio Canales, Japan World Cup talent Takashi Inui, and disgruntled, but very much capable, Espanyol keeper Pau López.
Coach Quique Setién promotes a style of play that is the closest to that of Pep Guardiola left in La Liga these days, at its best based on patient build-up to escape pressure followed by a sharp change of pace in the final third to slip through rival defensive blocks. Prior to his arrival in May 2017, Betis had cycled through three managers in 12 months, but Setién has quickly connected with supporters who have embraced his dedication to an attacking game as part of their own collective identity.
Across the city, Sevilla haven’t quite been unearthing bargains and talent at the rate of the Monchi era, but several of their moves this summer look encouraging. Goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik has been excellent since arriving from Basel, keeping four clean sheets in five Europa League preliminary round games and conceding only one goal in his first two La Liga appearances. Striker André Silva scored a hat-trick in his first La Liga match for the Spaniards, ensuring he already has more league goals for Sevilla in one game than he managed over the entirety of last season for AC Milan. Elsewhere, Barça-schooled centre-back Sergi Gómez offers a technically competent option in defence, while bringing old Europa League hero Aleix Vidal back from the Camp Nou after three years in Catalonia gives supporters plenty of attacking quality to get excited about.
New manager Pablo Machín, meanwhile, is promoting the same high-tempo, forward-focused football that made his Girona side one of the breakthrough teams in La Liga last year. Continuing with his favoured system of two attack-minded wing-backs and two inside forwards behind a central striker, his ideas appear to be clicking with the new squad already, resulting in only one loss in his first eight official games at the club (and that defeat being a narrow one to Barcelona in the Spanish Supercup), not to mention consistently entertaining games for the neutral.
Sunday’s derby is not likely to be one of caution therefore. With plenty of technically talented players in both teams and two managers who look to out-score and out-run their opponents, we have a pretty good idea of what kind of pattern of play to expect. The Sevilla derby is always important and even this early in the season there is plenty at stake: Betis are without a win this season, so have a big opportunity to change their fortunes with a statement of intent by continuing their undefeated run against their biggest rivals this calendar year.
Sevilla meanwhile would love nothing more than to lengthen the difficult run Beticos are experiencing by striking a humiliating blow to their confidence, at the same time re-establishing Nervión as the part of the city where the best and most effective football is played. Hopefully the fans can hold it together. Hopefully the city survives.
Lee Roden is writing for talkSPORT on all things La Liga this season. Follow him on Twitter here.