Valencia visits Barcelona hoping to stave off danger of drop
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Twenty years is nothing for Valencia. The club's fans still yearn for the times when their team won the Spanish league title and grazed European glory.
These days, season after season of selling top players to other clubs, the team from Spain’s third largest city has a new objective: avoid the ignominy of relegation.
Valencia’s quest to dodge what would be a devastating blow to its status faces one of its toughest tests on Sunday when it visits Spanish league leader Barcelona.
Valencia is in 18th place — one point from safety. It has several injured players, including striker Edinson Cavani, and is still adapting to a new coach in former player Rubén Baraja.
Last weekend, Valencia was able to end a run of eight matches without a victory, even if it needed an own-goal by a Real Sociedad player to eke out a 1-0 result at Mestalla Stadium. Prior to that, Valencia had been outscored 12-4 by opponents over a run of seven losses and one draw in the league.
Relieved after finally giving their fans something to celebrate, Valencia striker Hugo Duro wept as the players lingered on the field.
“The truth is that Hugo Duro showed the frustration we have all been feeling,” teammate Samuel Lino said. “The win lifts a huge weight off of us.”
Baraja, who has coached only two games since taking over from the fired Gennaro Gattuso, will have holes to fill in his starting lineup at Camp Nou. Duro will likely fill in for the injured Cavani. But first-choice defenders Gabriel Paulista and José Gayà will both be sidelined as they recover from injuries.
Barcelona’s injury list will also likely include some of its best players. Robert Lewandowski, the league’s top scorer with 15 goals, midfielder Pedri and winger Ousmane Dembélé are all injured and will miss Thursday’s Copa del Rey semifinal match at Real Madrid.
But Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández can still call upon a deep squad loaded with international talent.
At least Baraja's players won’t have to filter out the vitriol their fans express for club owner Peter Lim.
Valencia’s home games have become opportunities for thousands of fans to protest against the ownership of the Singaporean businessman. They long for when Baraja helped Valencia win the league title in 2002 and 2004 and reach back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001. They are also are fed up with the club selling players and not replacing them. The latest example was the transfer of Spain midfielder Carlos Soler to Paris Saint-Germain.
Valencia will be lead by the speedy Lino, who in his first season in Spain has emerged as one of the league’s top one-on-one players, as well as United States midfielder Yunus Musah.
Barcelona itself needs to bounce back from a 1-0 loss at Almeria. That defeat left the league leaders seven points clear of second-place Madrid.
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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press