They’re 3rd in La Liga and although they’ve struggled here and there, they’re in the thick of the hunt for a Champions League spot once again.
Things are looking up for Los Che.
Their Copa del Rey semifinal opponents, Barcelona?
They’re on a slight downswing. When you reach the dizzying heights the Azulgrana have reached the past seasons, even one loss is considered a colossal surprise.
Coach Pep Guardiola insinuated his club’s feeling the stress at a press conference Tuesday, saying that being billed the world’s best comes with certain pressures.
The former Barca captain says living with constant expectation “makes you tense” and “sooner or later we’ll stop winning … a better team will come along. That’s when we’ll have to see if we believe in ourselves.”
Guardiola warned that “as a player I sometimes allowed myself to slip up and I don’t want my players to do the same.”
The coach of the world’s best club spoke in rallying tones ahead of Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semifinal after the reigning Spanish and European champions drew 0-0 at Villarreal to sit seven points behind league leader Real Madrid.
The Catalan giants have dropped 13 league points in 10 games away from the Camp Nou this season, including this weekend’s draw. But in the Copa del Rey they’ve won all three road matches so far by a combined score of 12-1.
How will they shape up against a Valencia side dreaming of cup glory, a premise they can’t fulfill in domestic play due to Madrid and Barca’s stranglehold on the league?
The record 25-time cup winner are without Andres Iniesta for the match at the Mestalla while forward Pedro Rodriguez may also miss out to injury. Defender Gerard Pique came off with a knee problem but trained with his teammates.
Lionel Messi was far from his best in the Villarreal game and failed to convert several chances he usually puts away.
“The message inside the locker room is of belief and confidence,” said goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto, who will play in place of Victor Valdes as usual in the cup. “The team isn’t tired. But it is difficult for things to work out perfectly every single day.”
Wednesday’s game is a rematch of the 2008 Copa semifinals, which Los Che won 4-3 on aggregate before going on to lift the cup with a victory against Getafe in the final.
However, that was the last time Valencia came out on top against the Catalan club, and they have yet to beat the reigning European champions in seven attempts under coach Unai Emery.
Emery thinks his side are underdogs but refuses to write off Valencia’s chances.
“Yes, it will be hard [against Barcelona], but we can do it,” Emery said, his hands gesticulating here, there and everywhere, his body shaking as if he had 30 cups of coffee.
“We will try. In terms of motivation, yes, we will be favorites.”
Valencia will miss Adil Rami and Pablo Hernandez, while Mehmet Topal (concussion) and Ever Banega (thigh strain) are doubtful after being taken off the field of play in Sunday’s bruising 2-2 draw at Racing Santander.
Valencia have a solid record at the Mestalla this season, having won all but five of their games there in all competitions, and losing just two.
But this is Barcelona and this is a cup semifinal.
What to expect?
While Barca’s form has slipped some, they’re still a superior squad. Still, Valencia’s amped up for this match and the Mestalla will be all guns blazing.
Valencia will pressure Barcelona. By pressure, I mean PRESSURE. Expect passing lanes to be shut down, a physical defensive tactic and a mad-dog rushing style that will look to throw Barca from their typical tiki-taka system of play.
I expect a chippy match full of drama and suspense.
My prediction? 2-1 Valencia but Barca gets their all-important away goal.