By Mike Collett
(Reuters) - The Welsh cities of Cardiff and Swansea will bring their fierce rivalry to the top flight of English soccer for the first time on Sunday in an occasion that will capture the imagination of fans far beyond the borders of Wales.
Saturday's game between Arsenal and Liverpool will have a major impact at the top of the Premier League, and champions Manchester United need to kickstart their season at Fulham, but few matches will generate the passion on show in the south Wales derby at Cardiff City Stadium.
Swansea City's Danish manager, Michael Laudrup, who knows a thing or two about rivalries having played for Lazio, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Ajax Amsterdam in his glittering career, is anticipating another special experience.
"It doesn't matter if it's Lazio v Roma, Copenhagen v Brondby, Real Madrid v Barcelona or Juventus v Torino, whatever it is or whatever country it's in, you know it's always something special because it means so much to so many people, especially the fans," he said.
"They want to win every game but some games are more special to them.
"A lot of people are talking about it, people walking down the street are talking about it and how much they want to win it. But that's OK because the players understand how important it is for the fans."
Cardiff and Swansea have played each other relatively infrequently because they have spent so many seasons in different divisions.
Liverpool have met Everton 218 times, Spurs have played Arsenal 171 times and Manchester United have clashed with Manchester City on 165 occasions, but there have only been 60 Swansea v Cardiff games with Swansea winning 24 and Cardiff 20.
Cardiff have had three previous spells in the top flight - between 1921-29, 1952-57 and 1960-62 - and Swansea graced the old first division in 1981-83 before reclaiming Premier League status in 2011. Cardiff achieved the same feat this year.
An indication of how far both clubs have come in recent times is that in 1998-99 they were in the third tier of English soccer playing at Ninian Park in Cardiff and Vetch Field in Swansea.
Both now have bright new stadiums and growing honors' lists. Cardiff have been FA Cup and League Cup finalists in the past five years, and Swansea won the League Cup last season and are now in Europe.
The Swans also have the better record in the league this season, lying ninth in the table with 11 points, two points and seven places above Cardiff, who are a point clear of the relegation zone.
Despite their position, Cardiff scored a notable 3-2 win over title contenders Manchester City in their first home league game of the season, and apart from a 4-1 defeat at Chelsea only one of their four league defeats has been by more than one goal.
Cardiff's main crisis this season has been off the field, when Malaysian owner Vincent Tan replaced manager Malky Mackay's confidant Iain Moody, the club's head of recruitment, with a 23-year-old who is the son of a friend of Tan's and was helping paint the stadium in the summer.
The issue prompted suggestions that Mackay could leave, but striker Peter Odemwingie, who arrived from West Bromwich Albion in the summer, hopes that does not happen and that Cardiff can build on their success in winning the Championship in 2012-13.
"(Mackay) is a good young manager, the people of this city have waited a long time for this," Odemwingie said.
"Our target is a realistic one - to stay up this year. The plan is to strengthen again next summer. It is a gradual process, but we are optimistic we can achieve it."
Like most clubs, Cardiff and Swansea now feature players from all over the world, but several Welshmen will be particularly inspired by Sunday's derby.
They include Wales captain Ashley Williams, back in the Swansea side following injury, and Cardiff's Craig Bellamy, who has just retired from international duty after making his 78th appearance for Wales in a 1-1 draw against Belgium this month.
(Editing by Stephen Wood)