La Liga: Emery heals rifts to inspire Valencia

October 23, 2008

MADRID, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Valencia have been transformed from a strife-ridden side that flirted with relegation last season to the early Primera Liga leaders thanks to new coach Unai Emery's ability to unite the dressing room.

The east coast side, who visit Recreativo Huelva on Sunday, started the last campaign as contenders for the title but fell apart after the club panicked and sacked Quique Sanchez Flores and appointed Ronald Koeman in his place.

The Dutchman helped cause a rift within the squad by dropping stalwarts Santiago Canizares, David Albelda and Miguel Angel Angulo and telling them they were surplus to requirements.

Valencia plummeted down the standings and although they won the King's Cup, Koeman was sacked just before the end of the campaign.

Emery, 36, arrived from Almeria in July with one season of top-flight experience, but has made in immediate impact with few changes to the squad. A great tactician and motivator, he has won over a tough dressing room in a short space of time.

"He has surprised us all because he knows how to get the most out of the squad. He came in with his arms wide open and has tried to get the best from every one of us," said Albelda, who has been restored to the side.

Winger Vicente has said there are many similarities now with the side Rafael Benitez led to the league title in 2002 and 2004. They top the standings with six wins from seven games, and have scored 17 goals to just four conceded.

Struggling Recre are third from bottom and without a win in six outings, though they put on a much-improved performance under new coach Lucas Alcaraz last weekend, drawing 1-1 at Valladolid.

Second-placed Sevilla are at home to Andalucian rivals Malaga on Sunday with both teams on winning streaks, while third-placed Villarreal host an Atletico Madrid side seeking a lift from three consecutive league defeats.

Champions Real Madrid receive Athletic Bilbao at the Bernabeu in Sunday's late game but will be without suspended Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Barcelona will be looking for their sixth consecutive league victory when Almeria visit the Nou Camp on Saturday.