Revitalised Valencia face title test in Barca visit
Both unbeaten and off to club record starts in La Liga, Valencia host Barcelona in the game of the La Liga season so far on Sunday (1945GMT) aiming to prove their title credentials are for real.
After two seasons in the doldrums riddled by coaching changes and questions over Singaporean owner Peter Lim’s running of the club, Valencia have been revitalised by a combination of new boss Marcelino Garcia Toral and sporting director Mateu Alemany to post a record run of eight straight La Liga wins.
They still, though, trail Barca by four points at the top of the table as the Catalans have amassed 34 points from a possible 36.
“The truth is the team has changed completely. Not just on a playing level but also our mentality. That is what the coach has helped us a lot with,” said Valencia’s top scorer Simone Zaza, himself reborn after a disastrous loan spell at West Ham United last season.
In contrast to recent years where Lim’s recruitment has been questioned for his closeness to Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes, the majority of Valencia’s seven new signings after another summer clearout have shone.
However, the need for Los Che to take advantage of poor starts to the season by Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid for a historic achievement like a first La Liga title since 2003/04 is intensified by the fact that three of their top performers – Goncalo Guedes, Geoffrey Kondogbia, and Andreas Pereira – all arrived on season-long loan deals.
Nevertheless, Lim hit back at his critics blaming ‘fake news’ and ‘fake fans’ for Valencia’s struggles in the last two seasons.
“Peter Lim invested more than 200 million euros of his own money to save this club. None of the fake fans who pretend to defend this club from Meriton and from Peter Lim put any money to save this club,” read a recent Valencia club statement.
Former Valencia and Barcelona striker David Villa also had no doubt that Marcelino would have an instant impact.
“I’m not surprised about Marcelino’s numbers,” said Villa, now plying his trade with New York City.
“We’ve known each other from his first stint as a head coach at the Sporting Gijon B team. As soon as he signed for Valencia, I said that I was fully convinced that he would change the team and the club’s direction with positive results.”
Marcelino will have to watch from the stands on Sunday after being sent-off in last weekend’s 2-0 win at Espanyol as he attempts to beat Barcelona for the first time as a coach at the 15th attempt.
To do so, his free-scoring Valencia will have to penetrate a Barcelona defence propped up by goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen that has recorded 13 clean sheets in 18 games this season.
“He is in great form, although our intention is that he doesn’t have to make so many saves,” admitted Barca boss Ernesto Valverde after the German pulled off a stunning stop in the final seconds from Paulo Dybala to ensure a 0-0 draw at Juventus on Wednesday.
The importance of the Mestalla meeting for Barca was underlined as Valverde left Lionel Messi on the bench for the first hour in Turin to keep him fresh.
Messi will return, but Barca will be without the suspended Gerard Pique meaning Thomas Vermaelen is likely to be forced into a first La Liga start of the season with Javier Mascherano also sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Both 10 points adrift of Barca, Real and Atletico can close the gap at the top on Saturday when they face Malaga and Levante respectively.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Celta Vigo v Leganes (2000)
Alaves v Eibar (1200), Real Madrid v Malaga (1515), Real Betis v Girona (1730), Levante v Atletico Madrid (1945)
Deportivo la Coruna v Athletic Bilbao (1100), Real Sociedad v Las Palmas (1515), Villarreal v Sevilla (1730), Valencia v Barcelona (1945)
Espanyol v Getafe (2000)
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