La Liga: Valencia look to close gap on top three

January 25, 2007

MADRID, Jan 25 (Reuters) - With Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla all failing to live up to expectation in recent weeks, Valencia have taken advantage to scale the table and stake their claim in the title race.

Quique Sanchez Flores's side will be looking to confirm their championship credentials when they meet a gradually improving Real Betis in Seville on Sunday.

Valencia had a trouble-torn start to the season after losing a string of important players to serious injury and were 12 points off the pace at the beginning of December.

But the gradual return of players from the treatment table has helped restore confidence and with six wins from their last six league outings, Valencia are the form team in the Primera Liga.

'The first half of the season was difficult but we are now in a good position,' club captain David Albelda said this week. 'It is great to finish the first half in a position that means we can fight for the title.'

Valencia have rediscovered the sort of consistency that took them to the title in 2002 and 2004, but Albelda believes the team can take nothing for granted against Luis Fernandez's side who put Real Madrid out of the King's Cup and held Barca to a 1-1 draw on Wednesday.

'Although they are in the bottom part of the table, you can't relax because they've got some quality players. They've improved under their new coach,' Albelda said.

Barcelona may remain top of the table, but the jury is out on Frank Rijkaard's side after a series of stale performances culminating in their draw at Betis.

The Catalans, who host Celta Vigo on Sunday, have won just one of their last five games and look to be treading water as they await the return of injured forwards Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o.

'We are going through a difficult period,' Ronaldinho said after the Betis match. 'We just have to keep working hard and I'm sure we'll be in better form on Sunday.'

Real Madrid, who are three points behind the leaders, are at Villarreal on Saturday, but once again it is off-field matters that are taking centre stage.

Attention has been focused on Ronaldo's likely move to AC Milan and on the legal wrangling that could bring an early end to Ramon Calderon's presidency.

'It is not good for the team,' defender Michel Salgado said this week. 'The club has to sort out these problems.'

Real will be without injured skipper Raul, left back Roberto Carlos and midfielder Emerson, while striker Gonzalo Higuain and defender Sergio Ramos are both doubtful.

Villarreal are not without their problems either and it remains to be seen whether coach Manuel Pellegrini will decide to dispense with playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme once again after question marks over the Argentine's commitment.

Former leaders Sevilla have got off to a poor start to the year, taking just one point from their last three matches, but on Sunday they will be favourites against struggling Levante who have won only one of their last 11 games.

'It is better to have a dip in form at this stage of the season rather than later on,' coach Juande Ramos said on Wednesday. 'The important thing is to be in good form for the last 10 matches of the season.'