BARCELONA // Rafael Marquez, Barcelona's defensive midfielder who can also switch to centre back, has enjoyed better seasons. The 31-year-old Mexico captain, has been a regular for the Catalans since signing from Monaco in 2003, playing between 21 and 34 league games each season.
He starred in Barca's 2006 Champions League win and started 10 times in their successful run to victory in the same competition in Rome three years later, but an injury to his left knee prevented him from playing in the final, just as it has restricted him to five starts so far this season. Pep Guardiola, the Barca coach, has faith in the elegant Mexican, who could earn his 100th cap for his country at the World Cup finals. He signed a new contract in November which will keep him at the Camp Nou until 2012 and scored his first goal since his return from injury against Racing Santander last month.
By Friday, after Barca's training ground had been cleared of the snow which fell in the city for the first time in 25 years, Marquez faced the media after working out with the squad. Blessed with the looks of a Hollywood star, Marquez is dating the Mexican model-actress Jaydy Michel and looked content with life as he discussed tonight's home Primera Liga game against Valencia. "We are now in the run-in and every game is vital, but Valencia are a strong side and we know that they have great players," Marquez explained. "This is a key game."
Valencia are third, 15 points behind Barca and Real Madrid. Their form has dipped, with two wins from their last seven games, though only Barca boast a better away record than Los Ches' seven wins and three draws in 13 games. Recently, a 4-1 defeat at Atletico Madrid two weeks ago was followed by Monday night's 0-0 disappointing home draw against Racing Santander. Valencia could only manage a 1-1 draw against Werder Bremen at the Mestalla on Thursday night in the Europa League and face a tough return leg.
David Villa, their 17-goal Spanish international striker and the second highest scorer in Spain this season, may miss the match after landing awkwardly and hurting his shoulder against Bremen. Valencia said the decision on whether he plays will be made at the last minute, but Marquez feels their pacy attack will pose a threat with or without Villa, saying: "They are one of the strongest up front in the league. They have so much quality. If David Villa plays or not, they will still be dangerous. Villa is a great player but with or without him it will not be easy."
Barcelona, too, will be missing their main frontman after the Spanish football federation turned down their appeal against Zlatan Ibrahimovic's red card last weekend, but he will be able to play in Wednesday's Champions League game against Stuttgart. "We have to be very careful against Stuttgart," opined Marquez. "They are strong and will be the same as they were in Germany. We have to remember that what happened to Real Madrid could happen to us. We have to always respect the opposition and continue to work with humility."
"We all need to be at our best for the run-in, me included," con cluded Marquez. "That way everything will go well. We have confidence and I hope that we will be back to our best on the pitch soon. I am ambitious and always want to play. And I am better now, recuperated after the injuries." After an injury-hit season among their defence, Barca are glad to have Marquez back at this vital stage. email@example.com
Barcelona v Valencia, 10pm, Aljazeera Sport + 3