MADRID (AP) Valencia doesn’t have fond memories of the last time it faced Barcelona in the Copa del Rey.
The teams met two years ago in the semifinals, with Valencia losing 7-0 in the first leg at Camp Nou Stadium. It couldn’t manage more than a 1-1 draw against Barcelona’s second-stringers in the return match.
The teams meet again in the last four this season, but things have changed considerably for Valencia since that embarrassing defeat.
Article continues below ...
”It’s true that two years ago it was an awkward result, very unpleasant,” Valencia striker Rodrigo said. ”But since then we have competed well against them, and even defeated them. We will prepare by giving a lot of importance to this match.”
The first leg is Thursday at Camp Nou, with the return match next week at Mestalla Stadium.
Valencia was reeling when it faced Barcelona two seasons ago, sitting not far from the relegation zone in the Spanish league and being under pressure after a series of poor performances. Fans were not happy with then-coach Gary Neville, who was struggling in his first head-coaching job.
Now Valencia is in a much better situation under coach Marcelino Garcia Toral, being considered the season’s top sensation. It is third in the league standings, and not long ago it was fighting with Barcelona for the top spot. It won nine straight matches early in the season.
Valencia is coming off two league losses, against Las Palmas and defending champion Real Madrid, and it needed a penalty shootout to advance past Alaves in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. But good performances in recent matches against Barcelona give Toral and his players confidence going into the semifinals.
”We have been playing well against Barcelona and we have had our chances of winning matches,” Rodrigo said. ”We have to play knowing that it’s not going to be a normal 90-minute match in the league. There will be another 90-minute match to be played at Mestalla. We have to work hard so we can be prepared.”
Valencia drew 1-1 at home when the teams played in the league earlier this season. After the 7-0 defeat, Valencia lost only two of its five matches against Barcelona, winning 2-1 at Camp Nou in a league game in 2016.
Barcelona has been on a level of its own this season, leading Atletico Madrid by 11 points in the Spanish league. It is 17 points ahead of Valencia and 19 points in front of fourth-place Real Madrid, which has a game in hand.
Messi and Suarez are thriving, having combined to score at least a goal each in seven of Barcelona’s last eight matches. Messi is the league’s leading scorer with 20 goals, followed by Suarez with 16.
And the team’s attack is being boosted by Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho, who is coming off his first start in the Spanish league this weekend.
”In the beginning of the season it didn’t look like Barcelona was going to do well, but it has been playing at an incredible level right now,” Rodrigo said. ”We need to have the same mentality that we had when we competed well against Barcelona in the league. We will have to play our own game.”
Barcelona is a three-time defending champion in the Copa del Rey.
Leganes hosts Sevilla in the first leg of the other semifinal match on Wednesday. Sevilla eliminated Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals, while and Leganes beat Real Madrid.
More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni