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Villarreal take on Valencia at El Madrigal

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The team we love to hate, Bankia Valencia (formerly the Unibats) come to town, fresh off a Europa League victory over a cupcake opponent. It would be grand to pick up three points in this fixture!

Villarreal fans in January 2012, the last time Los Che visited El Madrigal
Villarreal fans in January 2012, the last time Los Che visited El Madrigal
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso

To be honest, we still don't know, after a quarter of the season gone, how good a team we have.   Are we good enough to avoid a relegation battle?  Almost certainly.  Are we good enough to finish in a comfortable mid-table position?  It looks like it.  But are we good enough to mount a challenge for a European position next year?   Yes, we're in fourth place now, but is that an artifact of the schedule, or are we that good?  At times--against Real Madrid, against Granada, against Osasuna away--it's looked like the answer might be yes.  But road defeats at Betis and Athletic Bilbao suggest the opposite.

Now we have the visit of a hated local rival, and a team that has battled it out with us for the European places during much of the past decade.  On the horizon: home games against the streaking Getafe and imperious Atletico Madrid, and away matches against fellow Valencian Community clubs Levante and Elche.  It's a five-game stretch that could define our season, and it begins on Sunday at El Madrigal.

Our opponents:  If you are a Villarreal fan, you know Valencia are the big-city rival we love to hate.  One of the glories of Villarreal's play in recent years was the 4-2 Copa del Rey win in El Madrigal in 2011--never mind we got bounced out of the cup later, never mind we made the Europa League semis, never mind we qualified for the Champions League--that was a highlight of our season!

Valencia were, at one time, the trendy third team in Spain, an antidote to the dominance of Madrid and Barca.  From 1999 to 2004 Los Che played in two Champions League finals and won two La Liga titles, as well as a UEFA Cup.  Hard to imagine today, isn't it!

With a large fanbase, the club has always been willing to spend big for success, which is a good model as long as on-the-pitch success happens.  For Valencia, that's defined as a Champions League place and hopefully qualification from the group stages; the failure of the team to qualify for the CL in 2007-08 led to players being unpaid for weeks in the 2008-09 season, with a bank loan finally obtained to cover the wages.  A second year without CL football followed, and things got worse.

However, the current albatross hanging over Los Che is a half-built stadium, the Nou Mestalla.   The plans for this were unveiled in 2006, and the plans envisaged a 75,000-seat stadium clad in aluminum as well as retail spaces in the surrounding area which would be owned by the club and bring in revenue.   Originally the stadium was supposed to be completed by 2009, but increasing costs, legal issues with property condemnation, and the Spanish property crash all contributed to halt work on the ground.  In 2011 Spanish lender Bankia announced that it had reached an agreement with the club to resume the construction, but a year later pulled out.

At present Valencia is essentially insolvent and is being run by Bankia; it's estimated it will cost €160m to finish the new stadium, and the bank isn't willing to advance that, even if it had it to lend; the budget for the playing staff is tight.   They should qualify for the Europa League knockout stages from an easy group, in spite of a home loss to Swansea that had the fans calling for the coach's head, but they need to get to the semifinals to earn good money.

Over the last few years players such as David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata and Jordi Alba have all been sold off to pay the bills, and this summer it was Roberto Soldado's turn.  So this season is really a key one for Valencia.  If they don't qualify for the Champions League, and can't get their debt renegotiated or find some partner to invest some money to finish the new stadium, there aren't any more stars left to sell.

That said, Valencia still have some useful players.  Dorlan Pabon was a good signing this summer; Jonas and Helder Postiga can certainly score some goals;  Banega, Feghouli, Guardado... good players, but not, anymore, any great ones.  Unai Emery, a master tactician, always brought Los Che to El Madrigal full of ideas to frustrate the free flow of the Yellow Submarine.  Miroslav Djukic is likely to emphasize the physical style in this game, I think.  Frustrate the home side, create some chaos.  That's how I see Valencia trying to play this one.

Our squad: Villarreal are pretty much at full strength although Jokic is still out.  I will renew my call for Hernán Pérez and Jérémy Perbet to be in the starting lineup this time at the expense of Javier Aquino and Jony Pereira.  The good news was that Bruno's red card (technically, his second yellow card) was overturned, so he is available to play.  He will start, I'm sure, and I have a hunch Manu Trigueros will partner him.

Prediction: This sure looks like a 1-1 draw, doesn't it?  That's the logical pick.  I'll go 2-1 to Villarreal, for no good reason other than we're playing at home and we deserve it.  ENDAVANT VILLARREAL!!