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Valencia hopes in the balance

Published: Friday 19 April 2002, 20.00CET
Title ambitions are at stake when Valencia CF meet RC Deportivo La Coruña on Sunday. features

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Published: Friday 19 April 2002, 20.00CET

Valencia hopes in the balance

Title ambitions are at stake when Valencia CF meet RC Deportivo La Coruña on Sunday.

The talk in Valencia on Thursday was of yesterday - to be precise, of the club's last league championship, won 31 years ago to the day.

Famous afternoon
To mark the occasion the Spanish football daily Marca brought together the players who, under the tutelage of Alfredo di Stéfano, clinched the title with a 2-0 win at RCD Espanyol. Only four of the current Valencia CF squad were alive that famous afternoon of 18 April 1971 - Santiago Cañizares, Miroslav Djukic, Amedeo Carboni and Jocelyn Angloma - yet according to one of yesterday's heroes, Oscar Rubén Valdez, they could soon be the new history makers. "They remind me of the team we had, and when I joined the club we had also gone about 20 years without lifting the title," he said.

Main event
Valencia lead the Spanish first division by a point from Real Madrid CF with four games to play. The first of these is on Sunday against RC Deportivo La Coruña, the other team in contention, lying a further point adrift in third place. The Mestalla stadium is the setting for a game the Spanish press are billing as a 'final'. Certainly, it is Sunday's main event.

Other matches
Elsewhere, there is something distinctly middle-class about the communions of Athletic Club Bilbao and Sevilla FC, Espanyol and Villarreal CF, and Real Betis Balompié and Real Sociedad, while the proletariat are involved in the Málaga CF-RCD Mallorca, Deportivo Alavés-Real Zaragoza, and Real Valladolid-Club Atlético Osasuna matches.

Important fixture
Truth is, defeat may spell the end of the visitors' title ambitions - leaving Deportivo five points behind, with Madrid still to visit the Riazor. Another former Valencia player, Deportivo's left winger Enrique Romero, admitted the importance of the fixture saying, "It will have a big effect on the destination of the title. Valencia have home advantage, so we have to be stronger than they are mentally if we are to get a result."

Tougher run-in
While Deportivo have arguably the tougher run-in ("the most difficult fixtures of the lot," says their captain Fran González) Javier Irureta's men at least have the psychological advantage of having been there before. They were champions in 2000, Madrid last season.

Dangerous opponents
So can Valencia stand the pace in their first term under coach Rafael Benítez? Striker Miguel Angel Angulo believes so. "We have been in a great run of form and have had a very consistent season, despite the odd setback. As a result, we have a chance of winning the title," he said. "But Deportivo are dangerous opponents who always rise to the occasion in big away games. It will be a great advert for Spanish football and we just hope it doesn't turn out to be their day."

Double hopes
Deportivo's best away day so far has come in Madrid, where they beat the hosts at the Santiago Bernabéu to lift the Spanish Cup. A similar story on Sunday will increase Galician hopes of a league and cup double. However, Irureta must negotiate the twin impostors of injury and suspension as well as Valencia. Centre-forward Diego Tristán has a thigh injury which ruled him out of Spain's midweek romp in Northern Ireland - "a big setback at a key stage of the season".

Duscher and Makaay set to play
Central midfield player Mauro Silva is banned following his sending-off against Espanyol last week. Their replacements should be David Beckham's nemesis, Aldo Duscher, and Roy Makaay. Yet there are also question marks against the fitness of César Martín Villar, Emerson and José Manuel.

Ayala back in training
For the home side, Pablo Aimar could make a quicker-than-expected recovery from the leg injury inflicted by Jens Jeremies during Argentina's friendly in Germany on Wednesday. And there could be a further boost with the return of his countryman Roberto Ayala, who is back in training after a muscle strain. Now it is just a matter of who gets the breaks on Sunday evening. That, more than anything, will decide the identity of tomorrow's heroes.

Last updated: 19/04/02 20.26CET

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