Valencia CF’s only chance of winning silverware this season lies in the UEFA Europa League, Europe’s secondary club competition behind the prestigious Champions League.
This season’s incantation sees the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Lazio vying for the prize. Los Che will have their work cut out for them.
Their opponents in the Round of 32 this Thursday are England’s Stoke City, who are making their first run in the latter stages of a UEFA tournament.
Stoke, known as the Potters, are England’s second oldest club, formed in 1863. Their Britannia Stadium, site of the first leg, is an intimidating, loud structure made to shake visiting nerves.
Soccer analyst Andy Gray once said Barcelona would struggle playing on ‘a cold wet Tuesday night in Stoke.’ It’s not Tuesday, but Valencia need to be prepared to deal with the Potters physical style of play.
Stoke’s current form hasn’t been endearing. They’ve lost 4 straight matches in the Premier League and have dropped to 13th in the table on 30 points after once hovering near the European places.
With an FA Cup Round of 16 match against surprise package Crawley Town this coming weekend, coach Tony Pulis will need to work his rotation and spell some players.
Stoke attribute their recent stretch run to a poor run of form, with players looking tired and balls not bouncing their way.
But Pulis knows he needs to maximize his players efforts if he’s to see Stoke past Spain’s third-best club.
“I can tell you that our supporters will see some top, top players when Valencia come to town,” said the Stoke boss.
Pulis has a wealth of talent in the locker room. Problem is, it hasn’t gelled of late.
Striker Peter Crouch has looked out of sorts. Wilson Palacios hasn’t contributed, while Matthew Etherington hasn’t been supplying the strike force with adequate service.
Jon Walters and Kenwyne Jones have been decent, but look fatigued. Jermaine Pennant has bickered with Pulis and is in the doghouse.
Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross will man the middle of the defense but they’ve also looked off- form.
Pulis is likely to start Bosnian Asmir Begovic in goal ahead of Thomas Sorensen, who’s been poor or late. Midfielder Rory Delap is a probable starter after being rested from Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Fulham.
Pulis will also be sorely tempted to lean on Peter Crouch’s renowned continental experience for the biggest European night in Stoke’s history.
Crouch has 24 goals in 47 European appearances for Aston Villa, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Tottenham and Stoke. He’s looking to end a run of six games since last scoring for the Potters.
Valencia come into this match after being eliminated midweek from the Copa del Rey semifinals by Barcelona. While many expected a cup hangover at the weekend, Valencia hammered Sporting Gijon 4-0.
Coach Unai Emery’s men are the perennial third club behind Barca and Real Madrid, Los Che firmly in 3rd place, eight points above 4th place Levante, eight behind Barcelona and eighteen behind leaders Real Madrid.
With no chance at the league title, the Europa League affords Valencia a chance to win silverware for their long-suffering supporters.
Even with an impending trip to Barca’s Nou Camp on Sunday, expect a full-strength Valencia side at the Britannia. Striker Roberto Soldado has recovered from the flu, midfielder Pablo is back in the fold and captain David Albelda is ready to help out.
Goalkeeper Diego Alves is probably out for the match with the flu so expect Vicente Guaita to start. Left back Jordi Alba is also out due to sickness, so Valencia may start Bruno or Miguel in his place.
Ever Banega will man the defensive midfield with Albelda while Sofiane Feghouli will team with Jonas and Pablo behind Soldado.
Stoke play a physical, direct brand of football. They look to narrow the pitch and pressure the man on the ball. Valencia will need speed and quickness to deal with Stoke’s physicality.
Also, Stoke lay a long ball style and will drive high passes into the box for their tall strikers.
Valencia have a defensive liability when it comes to the high ball and will need center backs Adil Rami and Victor Ruiz to be in top form, especially off set plays.
Luckily, Los Che bring a wealth of speed and agility to the Britannia.
Los Che won’t have it easy. But they’re technically a better side and should escape England
with a victory.
2-1 for Los Che and on to the Nou Camp this Sunday.