Valencia seeks poise under pressure of surprise title hunt
By JOSEPH WILSON
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Valencia has found the coach, the talent, and the ambition.
But does it have the poise of a champion?
The last time Valencia played away from home it squandered an excellent opportunity to close the gap with Barcelona at the top of the Spanish league. Valencia traveled to the newly promoted Getafe a day after Barcelona had unexpectedly dropped two points when it was held by Celta Vigo to a 2-2 draw at Camp Nou.
Valencia, however, slumped to its first loss of the season, a 1-0 defeat against a Getafe playing with 10 men for more than an hour. And instead of accepting that his team succumbed to the pressure of the title hunt, team captain Dani Parejo blamed the loss on what he called the poor condition of the field.
Valencia will face a tougher test away from home on Saturday, when it plays at an Eibar side that despite its lean budget hasn't lost in its last four home games and has only lost twice in the last eight rounds.
Besides the challenging rival, Valencia will also have to make do without two of the players that have been key to its dramatic improvement this season.
Striker Simone Zaza, whose 10 goals are only behind Lionel Messi's 14 in the competition, will serve a one-game suspension for accumulation of yellow cards. Midfielder Carlos Soler, one of the league's revelations at 20 years old, will also be out recovering from pain in an ankle.
Valencia coach Marcelino Garcia Toral said his team has a deep enough squad to overcome the absences of Zaza and Soler.
"We have a competitive team that can beat Eibar, even if it is playing its best soccer of the season and winning games by a clear margin," Garcia Toral said Friday. "We have a good team, ambition, maximum motivation and we want to win. We will give it our all. We can't use the missing players as an excuse if we fail to win."
In his first season in charge, Garcia Toral has transformed Valencia from a team that was a coach killer into the biggest threat to Barcelona as the league approaches the midway point.
With demanding fans still longing for the glory days of Rafa Benitez, who guided the club to the league title in 2002 and 2004, Valencia had churned through 10 coaches in the previous five seasons. Singapore businessman Peter Lim had struggled to find a manager who could survive a full season since Nuno Espirito Santo made it through the 2014-15 campaign, including flops by former England player Gary Neville and former Italy coach Cesare Prandelli.
Valencia has risen to second place ahead of both regular contenders Atletico Madrid, in third, and Real Madrid, in fourth. Valencia enters the 16th round five points behind the undefeated Barcelona, which is heavily favored against Deportivo La Coruna at home on Sunday.
So Valencia needs to win to make sure it stays in touch, especially since Barcelona's following match is at Real Madrid.
Garcia Toral has rejuvenated the Valencia mainstays who survived an off-season purge and quickly incorporated a large bunch of newcomers.
The hole left by Zaza on Saturday will be filled by backup Santi Mina and forward Rodrigo Moreno, who has finally become the scorer Valencia thought it was buying from Benfica in 2014. Moreno's eight goals this season have earned him a contract extension through 2022 and spot on Spain's national team as it prepares for next year's World Cup.
Attacking players Andreas Pereira and Goncalo Guedes, who arrived on loan from Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively, could also feature to help replace the playmaking of Soler.
Garcia Toral has also helped new faces flourish in defense after the club parted ways with long-time goalkeeper Diego Alves and midfielder Enzo Perez, among other players who had been important pieces of a team that frustrated its fans with back-to-back 12th-place finishes in the prior two seasons.
Gabriel Paulista, who signed with the club after his move from Arsenal in August, credits his new coach for the immediate success the team is enjoying.
"At the beginning of the season I had my doubts because of how Valencia had fared in recent seasons," Paulista said. "But thanks to the work put in by Marcelino, who I already knew, I knew that we were going to have a good season, but not this good. We are working hard in practice and that is carrying over to matches. Sometimes it doesn't, like against Getafe, but we are focused on doing just that."
Brazilian goalkeeper Neto has won over Valencia's fans, after he escaped the long shadow of Gianluigi Buffon at Juventus. Holding midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia is also excelling as a partner for Soler and an improved Parejo since arriving on loan from Inter Milan.
Still, Garcia Toral believes that his team's real ceiling is a top-four finish, not a league title.
"It would have been very difficult three months ago to imagine we would be in this position now," Garcia Toral said. "If at the the end of the season we classify for the Champions League, it will be a complete success. I believe that changing a negative situation into a positive in soccer is very difficult."
Updated December 15, 2017