x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Valencia and Atletico out to break Madrid-Barca monopoly

The league leaders Valencia host Atletico Madrid, the team they overtook at the weekend, tonight at the Mestalla.

Valencia's Jordi Alba, left, evades Atletico Madrid's Sergio Aguero last season.
Valencia's Jordi Alba, left, evades Atletico Madrid's Sergio Aguero last season.

One game stands out in the midweek Primera Liga fixture list. Valencia, the league leaders, host Atletico Madrid, the team they overtook at the weekend, tonight at the Mestalla. Valencia are the only team in Spain with a 100 per cent record having won all three games so far. They also destroyed Buraspor, the Turkish champions, 4-0 away in their opening Champions League group game last week.

But fans will be careful not to get carried away. They started last season with a couple of victories and their three league wins have come against Malaga, Racing Santander and Hercules - a triumvirate unlikely to finish in the top half of the table. The clash against Atletico represents the first true test for a side which lost their best two players, David Villa and David Silva, in the summer. They were not the only departures from the Mestalla. Ruben Baraja and Carlos Marchena were around when Valencia twice won the league in 2002 and 2004 and lifted the Uefa Cup.

However, Vicente, the winger, David Albelda, the central midfielder, and the versatile David Navarro, still provide a link with that other, more successful, age. Albelda's bizarre legal dispute with his own club over unpaid wages seems a distant memory now a new board have brought stability. It was needed as Valencia, lurching from crisis to controversy, were on the brink of insolvency until the city council stepped in with an emergency loan last year.

One headache which remains is their half-finished new stadium, and work has yet to re-start on the project. Los Che need a winning team if they are to resurrect their stadium plans and Unai Emery, their coach, has kept key players whom he considers Valencia's future. Juan Mata, the forward, is only 22, but he is in his fourth season in the first team and is a Spanish international. Ever Banega, the Argentine, is solid in central midfield alongside compatriot Tino Costa.

Miguel, the right-back, is showing the form which had Europe's giants chasing him four years ago, as is Joaquim, the winger.Valencia would be satisfied if they repeated last season's third-placed finish, given they have the major distraction of the Champions League awaiting. Atletico, too, are enjoying a rare spell of stability off the pitch. Too often mired in controversy, instability and political infighting, the shifts in boardroom power invariably affected matters on the pitch, with coaches dismissed with the frequency usually only exercised by their neighbours in the north of the Spanish capital.

The Atleti bandwagon has stalled, with a defeat to Barcelona providing a dose of reality. The more sober critics remembered Atleti finished 52 points behind Barca in the league last season. Still, plenty in the Spanish media thought that Atleti really could challenge Barca and Real Madrid for the title - after all they had won the Europa Cup and beaten European champions Inter Milan in the European Super Cup.

Even some of their players bought into the mood, with Jose Reyes asking: "Scared? Of Barca? We're Atletico and we're playing at the Calderon." His question was well founded, for Barca had lost their last three games there, though in hindsight it appeared grossly overconfident, for Atleti were easily second best and Atleti fans have stopped staring at the early league table which showed them top after two games.

Like Valencia, this game will measure their progress. Quique Sanchez Flores, the coach who in his own words has taken Atleti from being "in intensive care to resuscitation" will be hoping the patient is on the way to a full recovery. @Email:sports@thenational.ae Midnight, Aljazeera Sport +2