From EPL flop to Mestalla Darling

Leganes defender Ezequiel Munoz closing down Valencia forward Simone Zaza during their 0-3 loss on Nov 4 at the Mestalla. The Italian, who has been playing through the pain barrier, will be the danger man against leaders Barcelona, who will want to p
Leganes defender Ezequiel Munoz closing down Valencia forward Simone Zaza during their 0-3 loss on Nov 4 at the Mestalla. The Italian, who has been playing through the pain barrier, will be the danger man against leaders Barcelona, who will want to put daylight between themselves and the chasing pack led by Valencia in LaLiga.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

With coach Marcelino banned, Valencia will draw strength from Zaza against Barcelona

BARCELONA • Valencia have gone from the laughing stock of the Spanish LaLiga a year ago to the main challengers to leaders Barcelona for the title and face the biggest test of their credentials when they host the Catalans tomorrow.

They are on a club-record run of eight wins and another victory in tomorrow's top-of-the-table clash would put them within a point of Barcelona (34).

But Ernesto Valverde's men, who have won 11 of their 12 games so far, would take a mighty step to reclaiming the title even at this early stage if they win at the Mestalla, with usual challengers Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid 10 points adrift.

Valencia have hurtled from one crisis to the next over the last five years, appointing 10 coaches since parting ways with Unai Emery in 2012, but they have finally found a suitable man for the job in Marcelino Garcia Toral.

Valencia, who finished 12th two years in a row, had a huge clear-out in the close season, getting rid of 13 players and replacing them with high-profile loanees such as Geoffrey Kondogbia, Goncalo Guedes, Jeison Murillo and Andreas Pereira.

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    West Ham reject Simone Zaza, with nine goals, trails only Lionel Messi (12) in the LaLiga top scorers' list.

As well as getting the best out of those signings, Marcelino has helped revive the likes of captain Dani Parejo, often criticised for his inconsistency, and Simone Zaza, who despite flopping at West Ham, has struck nine goals this season and trails only Barca's Lionel Messi (12) in the scoring charts.

It has been quite a turnaround for Zaza, who was ridiculed on social media for his penalty shoot-out miss against Germany in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals - when he took a long, staggered run-up only to balloon the ball over the bar.

The Italian then suffered a brief and unhappy loan spell at West Ham, where he failed to score in 11 games last season before moving on loan to Valencia in January.

He began this season - having secured a permanent move from Juventus - with the winner against Las Palmas but had a three-game drought before hitting back with a hat-trick in the 5-0 rout of Malaga.

It was the start of a scoring streak spanning six games, just one shy of equalling a 74-year club record.

Zaza's consistent form is all the more remarkable as he has been playing through a knee injury. He sat out last week's 2-0 win at Espanyol but is ready to face Barca.

"It is not a new injury, I've had it for over a year, it's common in football and we'll decide what to do at the end of the year, but it doesn't prevent me playing and I'm 100 per cent," he told Fox Sports Italia.

Marcelino will not be in the dugout against Barca owing to a touchline ban after being sent off against Espanyol.

"The feeling I get within our squad is a sense of humility and an understanding that becoming league champions is very, very, very difficult, because there are two giant clubs we need to get past," the Valencia coach told Spanish news outlet as.com yesterday.

"That's why our only aim is to take one game at a time. We were convinced we could build a good team here at Valencia, but I think we've all been taken by surprise at how well the lads are doing."

Valverde rested Messi - who collected his fourth Golden Shoe yesterday for being the top scorer in Europe last season - for the first half in Wednesday's 0-0 Champions League draw at Juventus.

The Barcelona coach, however, is short in central defence, with Gerard Pique suspended and Javier Mascherano injured.

REUTERS


VALENCIA V BARCELONA

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2017, with the headline 'From EPL flop to Mestalla Darling'. Print Edition | Subscribe