IT’S semi-final time in the Copa del Rey this midweek. Can Gary Neville’s men pull off the unthinkable at the Camp Nou? Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) previews the big game for us.
Barcelona v Valencia | Wednesday 19.30
It’s not been a happy introduction to life in La Liga for Gary Neville. The Manchester United legend has failed to record three points in any of his eight league fixtures and described Sunday’s 1-0 home defeat to Sporting Gijon – their first reverse at the Mestalla for 14 months – as the worst defeat of his short managerial career.
Los Che were expected to claim their first triumph under the England assistant with Sporting arriving on the back of seven successive away defeats. But Alvaro Negredo spurned a host of glorious goalscoring opportunities before the struggling visitors grabbed the only goal of the game soon after half-time.
The side that began the season by qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League now find themselves just five points above the drop zone and on their worst winless streak in the top-flight since 1986 (W0-D7-L4).
However, Neville, who reacted angrily to reporters after the defeat, has been given the full support of Valencia sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch. And the former Sky Sports pundit will be desperately hoping to see his side spark into life in the Copa Del Rey once more.
The Copa Del Rey has at least provided Valencia and Neville with some light relief with the Bats winning four of their five outings. However, it’s hard to find any faith in that positive patch continuing into Wednesday's trip to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona in semi-final first leg.
How far Los Che have fallen is reflected in their pre-match odds. BetVictor have chalked up the visitors as a 28/1 shot – suggesting just a 3.45% chance of success – and that appears harsh despite their obvious woes and flaws.
Why? Well, Barcelona have been far from their fluent best of late and might well be suffering from a bout of fatigue. The Catalans have been playing at least twice a week in 2016 and also had a trip to Japan for the Club World Cup before Christmas to squeeze in.
Malaga, Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid have all taken a positive, high-energy, pressing approach to shutting the Bluagrana down at source and all three managed to open the scoring. Barca appeared flustered and distressed for large parts of all three fixtures although they did come out on top on each occasion.
Should Neville’s men take a similar blueprint to that of Barcelona’s three previous opponents, Valencia could well give the Catalans an uncomfortable ride and get on the scoresheet. Either way, I’m not expecting a landslide result.
Although the Bats failed to notch at the weekend, they have managed to find the back of the net in 10 of their most recent 13 encounters as well as in games against Barca, Atletico and Real Madrid in league fixtures already this season.
And should they grab a goal in the Catalan capital, you’d fancy their prospects of keeping the scoreline reasonably respectable. With that in mind, supporting Neville’s troops with a +2.5 Asian Handicap at 22/23 (888 Sport) seems more than fair.
Only once since December 2013 have Los Che lost by a margin of three goals or more in domestic action – that’s a run of 95 matches! And previous head-to-head results have tended to be close affairs – since 2009/10 these two famous clubs have met on 11 occasions and Barcelona have beaten this handicap once.
Exclude the Blaugrana’s La Liga game with Athletic recently (the Basques had their goalkeeper sent off within three minutes) and you have to go back to November for the last match in which Luis Enrique’s all-conquering troops comfortably saw off a team of note by more than two goals.
Still, the European champions have returned W11-D1-L0 from their last 12 matches and are enjoying an unbeaten run of 26 games that’s not far off equalling a club record from 2009.
Luis Enrique’s kept the Barca bus on track to retain all three of last season’s trophies and they should at least claim a first leg victory here. So we’ll stick a home win and Both Teams To Score in the book too at a bulbous 9/5 (Betfair).
Barcelona v Valencia – Valencia +2.5 Asian Handicap (22/23 888 Sport)
Barcelona v Valencia – Barcelona to win and Both Teams To Score (9/5 Betfair)
Since returning from injury, Lionel Messi has scored 15 goals in 15 games, only failing to net on four occasions.
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