Emery upbeat as Barça beckons

Valencia coach targets first win over champion under his tenure at Mestalla

Levante's ambush of Real Madrid at the Ciudad de Valencia stadium last Sunday brought to an end a recent run of results that suggest both José Mourinho's side and Barcelona are not simply going to waltz their ways to the top two spots in La Liga and the latter stages of the Champions League this year. Few would bet against them being precisely in those positions toward the end of the season, but in the meantime smaller fry will revel in making Real and Barça's competition-hopping as fiery as possible.

Modest Levante, whose annual budget is less than what Cristiano Ronaldo pockets over the same period at Real, showed that a concerted defense, the ability to move the ball swiftly forward and, as Mourinho pointed out after the match - apparently without a shred of irony - the employment of some rugged tactics can sling a very large spanner or two into the Liga heavyweights' well-oiled machines.

Barcelona, which dropped Liga and Champions League points last week to Real Sociedad and AC Milan, tonight makes the trip down the eastern seaboard to the scene of Levante's hit-and-run when it visits the Mestalla to take on Valencia (10pm, La Sexta). Chastened by scathing headlines in Catalonia and barely disguised glee at what was prematurely perceived as era-ending errors by the Real-centric dailies, Barcelona subsequently knocked eight past a hapless Osasuna while barely ramping up past first gear.

In Mestalla, though, it will face its stiffest test yet, with the Valencia of Unai Emery sitting proudly atop La Liga while keeping clean sheets in its last three domestic and European encounters. Emery has again been forced to tweak his team after a summer of high-profile departures, but the former Almería coach is in a better position than many of his counterparts to translate ideas into on-field cohesion: entering their fourth seasons in their jobs, Emery and Barça's Pep Guardiola are the joint second-longest serving coaches in Primera División.

"Every game is a challenge but it's a fact that Barcelona is the team that we are yet to beat since I have been here," said Emery. "We have come close twice in Mestalla but have fallen short. It's difficult to beat Barcelona, because of the team it is, and also what it represents for Valencia, which is to consolidate our position at the top of the table. The first thing is to believe, and we believe. The second is to go out and do it, which we can. We will approach the game with this mentality but they are a very good team. This is our opportunity."

Analyzing Barcelona holds no mystery for its rivals, Emery noting that the champion has few defects and when its teeth are on the bit "you can only select the manner of your death."

"Messi is the best player in the world and Barça is the best team in the world. I admire Guardiola for everything he has achieved. He only has one defect and that is that he is not a valencianista," added Emery with a smile.

Newly promoted Real Betis, which shares Valencia's nine points after three matches and is second solely due to Roberto Soldado's impressive five goals in three games, also has the opportunity to establish itself in an unlikely Champions League spot during the early exchanges. There are few more tantalizing fixtures for Liga sides than Zaragoza at home and Betis' partisan support will expectafurther three points for its tally when Javier Aguirre's side visits Seville on Thursday.

Real should return to winning ways in Cantabria when it faces Racing Santander on Wednesday, a side in the relegation places and one of few that may not see its league position significantly altered all season. A calamitous buy-out has left the club in dire straits indeed and the feeling pervades that it will be racing its way toward Segunda before the Christmas decorations are dusted off.

At the Vicente Calderón, all eyes will be on very expensive striker Radamel Falcao. The Colombian did what neither Kun Agüero nor Diego Forlán managed at Atlético when he bagged a hat-trick in front of a fawning home support against Santander on Sunday, and the visit of bottom club Sporting represents a fine chance for the number 9 to embellish his record further.

Roberto Soldado celebrates his winning goal against Atlético.
Roberto Soldado celebrates his winning goal against Atlético.FERNANDO BUSTAMANTE (AP)
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