El Centrocampista

El Clasico grabs the headlines but the Derbi Valenciano could be the game of the weekend

REUTERS/Heino Kalis

A remarkable weekend of European football sees a host of grudge matches being played across the continent with Real Madrid’s trip to face Barcelona at the Camp Nou being the pick of the crop for many fans. Coming close is surely Sunday’s San Siro clash between Milan and Inter while elsewhere Spartak Moscow play host to CSKA, big spending PSG travel to bitter rivals Marseille, Porto welcome Sporting and in Turkey, Istanbul heavyweights Fenerbahce and Besiktas go head to head at the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium on Sunday.

While most eyes in Spain will be on proceedings in the Catalan capital on Sunday, however, there is another derby being played just over 300 km away that promises to be just as entertaining as the Camp Nou encounter, in fact it also provides an historic moment for the two teams involved.

Levante host their more illustrious city rivals Valencia on Sunday in a derby match that comes on the back of European games for both teams – something that has never happened in the history of football in the city. While Valencia may be seasoned continental campaigners having won a total of seven trophies on their travels, Juan Ignacio Martinez’s Levante are enjoying their first-ever foray into European  football after finishing an impressive sixth in just their second season back in the Spanish top flight last season.

After dispatching Motherwell in the knock-out phase of the Uefa Europa League, Levante topped Group L after the opening round of games thanks to a 1-0 victory over Helsingborg, however, a 2-1 defeat at  Hannover on Thursday saw los Granotes lose their 100% record in the competition and saw the Bundesliga side leapfrog them in the group.

Nonetheless, few could have predicted the club would be in this position when they opened up last season with a fairly lacklustre draw against Getafe at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez. Having spent much of the past decade yo-yoing between the first and second division in Spain, Levante’s current good fortune is somewhat remarkable, especially for a club that have also experienced some fairly dire financial woes in recent years.

Indeed there was some trepidation among fans ahead of the new season, especially when key man Arouna Kone was allowed to leave for Wigan Athletic and Xavi Torres turned down the chance of making his loan move from Malaga permanent – choosing to sign a four-year deal with Getafe instead, however, Levante have made a reasonable if not spectacular start to the new campaign.

Four wins from five home games in all competitions suggests the Ciutat de Valencia will be again be a difficult place to take points from this season, with the only blot on their record being the 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid on the opening day of the season.

While Levante have been imperious on home terrain however, away from home they have struggled so far. The Europa League win at Fir Park seemed to bode well for the club as they looked to improve on the four victories they managed in La Liga last season, however, that proved something of a false start and the side have lost four consecutive games on the road.

The home side certainly have some worries going into the game against Valencia, not least a midfield that is struggling to adapt to life without the departed Xavi Torres and the indifferent form of  the influential Jose Barkero. The former Numancia midfielder enjoyed a fantastic season last term and played a pivotal role in Levante’s best ever La Liga finish. Barkero has struggled to replicate that form so far this term, however, and there are growing concerns about the fitness of the 33-year-old.

There is also a worry over the gaping hole left by last season’s top scorer Arouna Kone. The Ivorian scored 15 times  last term and many believed he would remain for another season at least. That proved a forlorn hope, however, as the financial lure of the English Premier League proved too great a temptation to ignore – despite joining a side that will be yet again surely be battling relegation.

Obafemi Martins has been drafted in on a free transfer and the former Newcastle United star is sure to provide excitement and frustration in equal measure, however, Martins has been far from prolific throughout a career that has taken him from Italy to Spain with stop offs in Germany and Russia along the way. The Nigerian did make a scoring debut nonetheless, grabbing a late winner against Real Sociedad two weeks ago so there is some positivity surrounding his arrival at the club.

Last season’s encounter at the Ciutat de Valencia saw Levante go into the match  with an unfamiliar two point advantage over their more illustrious visitors, however, it proved little comfort as Unai Emery’s side ran out 2-0 winners. In fact Levante could only manage one draw from three games against Valencia last season as Los Che also triumphed in their Copa del Rey encounter in January.

Sunday’s game sees Valencia arrive at their neighbours with the advantage this time round, having won two, drew two and lost two of their six games so far. However, new coach  Mauricio Pellegrino has endured an unconvincing start to his reign at the Mestalla  and has already drawn criticism from it’s notoriously fickle fans. Concerns remain over the once solid partnership of Adil Rami and Victor Ruiz, with Rami in particular looking far from convincing this season. Pellegrino also has a number of injury doubts going into a game that could offer a kick start from both sides.

Ultimately, the game between Levante and Valencia will be lost beneath the hype generated by the media-saturated encounter at the Camp Nou, however, the derbi valenciano could just prove to be the game of the weekend in Spain for any fan willing to tune in on Sunday lunchtime.


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