Valencia host Atletico Madrid at the Mestalla tonight looking to continue their 100% record and regain top spot in La Liga. For Atletico, the game offers the chance to bounce back from Sunday’s defeat to Barcelona, their first loss in the league this season.
For many, this game pits the two teams most likely to challenge Barca and Real Madrid for the title, or more realistically, the two most likely candidates for third place. Most believe that the playing talent and financial power within the corridors of the Nou Camp and the Bernabéu make challenging the top two almost unattainable.
For Valencia, a repeat of last year’s third place would be a fantastic achievement after the sale of star duo David Villa and David Silva. Some of that money has been reinvested, with new signings Ricardo Costa, Mehmet Topal, Tino Costa, Roberto Soldado and Arturo Aduriz adding to the competition for places at the Mestalla.
Perhaps more importantly to Valencia’s impressive start to the season has been the return to top form of highly gifted but consistently underachieving midfielders Joaquin, Vicente and Ever Banega.
These three, alongside David Albelda, Juan Mata, Pablo Hernandez and the new signings, provide boss Unai Emery with all manner of attacking options.
Banega has been in stellar form so far this season, the young Argentine finally looking like justifying Valencia’s decision to pay €18m for him in January 2008. Unfortunately for Valencia, Banega picked up an ankle injury that keeps him out of tonight’s game and for the next couple of weeks, so it’ll likely be down to Topal or Costa to deputise.
The quality of Joaquin, Vicente, Mata and Pablo means that whoever Emery chooses to field, Valencia will possess a number of potent attacking threats, particularly from the wings. Atletico’s young goalkeeper, David de Gea, who was in stunning form in the loss to Barca, is likely to have his work cut out if Atletico are to leave the Mestalla with a victory.
Of course, this is likely to be far from one way traffic, as Atletico have a few attacking weapons themselves. Their strike force of Uruguayan goal machine Diego Forlan and the fantastically gifted Sergio Aguero rivals any partnership in Europe, and both will need to be on top form this year if Atletico are going to get anywhere near challenging Barca and Madrid.
Aguero has been battling injury troubles in the past two weeks, but if fit to play, the quartet of Forlan, Aguero and wingers Jose Antonio Reyes and Simao Sabrosa are an impressive group.
Both teams’ defenders will need to be in top form to stop the scoreline getting out of hand, which brings into play an intriguing battle between two goalkeepers at the opposite end of the age spectrum. The aforementioned de Gea is only 19 years old, while in the opposing goal is Valencia keeper Cesar, still going strong at the age of 39.
Atletico, who started the season with two league wins to add to their European Super Cup triumph over Inter Milan, have lost their last two. The loss to Barcelona was disappointing, but last Thursday’s loss to Aris Salonika in the Europa League, a competition they enter as defending champions, was slightly more embarrassing. They will be desperate not to lose further ground on Valencia, Madrid and Barcelona by losing again.
One further point of interest is the return to the Mestalla of former Valencia manager Quique Sanchez Flores, now in the Atletico hotseat. Flores, a Valencia player for ten years and manager for two, was sacked by the club in 2007 and surely has added incentive to win any time he faces his former employers.
Atletico’s desire to avoid a third straight defeat, coupled with Valencia’s attempts to sustain their 100% record, make this already mouth watering encounter even more compelling. This really is a game which could go either way, although Valencia’s home advantage will see them start as favourites. Whatever happens, both sides have the potential to make a real impact on the La Liga landscape this season.
Just don’t mention third place.