Another huge match this evening as two teams that on their day can either excite or frustrate. Schalke have put their league form to one side and impressed in the Champions League group stage Kevin McCauley from World Soccer Reader looks at their chances against Valencia.

As most people know, Schalke 04 have been two different sides between the Bundesliga and European competition. Though they have climbed out of the basement domestically, Schalke are still in a mid-table position in Bundesliga when they were believed to be a title contender in the preseason. Meanwhile, they skated through the Champions League group stages, easily qualifying for the knockout round, where they drew Valencia.

However, this is not exactly the same Schalke side that qualified for the Round of 16. Two of the team’s key pieces are gone. One through contract issues, and one through personal issues. Ivan Rakitic has moved on to Sevilla in La Liga after being sold in the January transfer window. The attacking midfielder’s contract was up in January, and Schalke were keen to get some sort of compensation as opposed to letting him walk for free.

Under completely different circumstances, defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones has gone to Blackburn Rovers on a loan with an option to buy after falling out with Felix Magath. These players have been replaced with Iranian attacking midfielder Ali Karimi and Ghanaian defensive midfielder Anthony Annan. It remains to be seen what kind of an impact they’ll make, but Annan was very good in his first outing for the club in the Revierderby against Borussia Dortmund.

However, Anthony Annan will have to wait to play in the Champions leage for Schalke, as he is cup tied. Young Cameroonian international Joel Matip came in for Annan as a substitute in Schalke’s win over Freiburg, and I like him to start the first leg. Valencia could play with a 4-4-2 formation, starting both Aritz Aduriz and Roberto Soldado up top, which would lessen Annan’s responsibilities. However, it seems much more likely that Valencia will line up in a 4-2-3-1 shape with three of Juan Mata, Pablo, Vicente, Joaquin, and Jordi Alba making up that band of three.

Felix Magath will probably be hoping that Unai Emery opts to go with two strikers instead. Or, Magath could throw a wrench in things by starting someone else in that spot, but in the event that Valencia go 4-2-3-1, With Annan unavailable, Matip is the best man for the job of breaking up Valencia’s attacks.

On the other end of the pitch, the matchup between Schalke’s attacking players and Valencia’s back line seems like a favorable one for Die Königsblauen. It took a while for Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Raul to settle in with the club, but they’ve turned into a dangerous pair. Additionally, with Ivan Rakitic gone, Jefferson Farfan is now almost certainly Schalke’s most dangerous player and he seems the most likely man to wreak havoc on Valencia’s defense.
Talent-wise, the gap between these two teams doesn’t seem that large, so it might come down to luck and tactics. In the luck department, Valencia are certainly kicking Schalke’s tails this season. In the tactics department, it’s tough to separate Magath and Emery.

For now, I like Valencia to win the tie on away goals or penalty kicks, but I could easily see it swinging either way. To me, it seems too close to call.

Faced with the thankless task of trying to catch Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga, Valencia will be looking forward to the oppurtunity of a run in this competition. David Cartlidge from Spanishfootball.info fills us in on their chances.

Valencia come into the game on a fantastic run of form, having won six of their last eight games and are sitting pretty in 3rd place in La Liga. Many however, would say that form and placing doesn’t tell the full story.

A good amount of the victories have come in the very last moments in games, and they’ve also benefited from some fortuitous officiating as well as poor lapses in judgement by the opposition at crucial times – though it could be argued they’ve been proficient enough to capitalize on such errors.

The thing with Valencia has been their inability to blow opponents away as such, and they’ve never really looked in control throughout any game. There is always a decent period within the 90 minutes that they’ll switch and off give away 4 or 5 very decent chances to the opposition, purely down to the fact they like to coast all too often.

There are many factors to this, one being Unai Emery’s fascinating, albeit frustrating pragmatism when it comes to setting up his side. Emery likes to tinker with his formations and personnel, and while many acknowledge his obvious talents as a manager there are some questionable features of his management style.

Valencia at one time or another has played with at least five different formations this season, though Emery perhaps favours his 4-2-3-1 over any of the others due to its stability at the back while at the same time focusing on the side’s main strength – wide play.

In midfield Los Che contain a lot more depth, and the most impressive player this campaign has been Tino Costa. The Argentinean signed from Montpellier in the summer and hit the ground running, becoming an integral part of any system which Emery employs, operating well in midfield by showing good ball retention as well as distributing it to more advanced players as he sits deep in the central areas ‘pulling the strings’.

Costa’s job is one seemingly vacated by Ever Banega, who was the star of last season but he’s failed to shine this season, perhaps finding unease with constant chopping and changing of systems as well as having ongoing off the field problems with Emery.

Juan Mata looks set to miss out the first leg through an injury, and this is of great benefit to Schalke as Mata has become the star of the team since David Silva and David Villa both departed for new pastures. Despite playing through of his career so far predominantly as a left-sided winger, Mata has found a new lease of life in an almost free-role operating all across the front line and has supported the lone striker well when in the team.

In a nutshell I’d say Valencia are a team who are vulnerable at the back and whom can be opened up when put under pressure, but must be watched incredibly closely on the counter attack when taking into account the quality they have in wide areas. The central hub of Costa and Banega is also a key facet, to let them keep the ball and dictate would be mistake of the German side’s part – and could be the difference between qualification and having their European trip cut short.

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This is the article I wrote for STV Sport before the match between Rangers and Valencia

After the dust settled on Rangers 4-1 win over Motherwell on Saturday, thoughts would have turned to this week’s opponents and early La Liga pace setters Valencia. A few hours after the full time whistle at Ibrox, Valencia were in action with the small task of taking on Catalan giants Barcelona in the Nou Camp and any fans who tuned in to cast their eye over their midweek opponents would have witnessed what truly was a “game of two halves”.

In a first half that consisted of Los Che taking the game to Pep Guardiola’s star studded side, dominating the play and deserving their half-time lead, Unai Emery’s team could have easily been held more than the slim one goal advantage. The second half was a much different story.

Pep Guardiola’s team talk worked a treat, with Barcelona pinning Valencia back in their own half for much of the half. A superb team goal finished by Iniesta gave them their equaliser, mimicking the movements of Kyle Lafferty and Steven Naismith earlier that day. Xavi’s pass sliced through four defenders and Iniesta applied the finish, making it 1-1 and later Carles Puyol left his defensive post unguarded to crash a powerful header into the net and give Barca a crucial home win.

The heroics of Cesar Sanchez in the Valencia net kept this game close, denying Villa and Messi countless times, but the defeat dropped Valencia down to third in the league after a bright start to the league campaign. There was, however, enough in the first half to show any Rangers fans watching that this is a team to be respected.

For many observers, this was supposed to be the season where Valencia fell away, the pressure to sell key players finally telling and seeing Valencia living in reduced circumstances, with results to match. David Villa and David Silva were the most notable departures from the Mestalla but Valencia also said goodbye to Nikola Zigic, Carlos Marchena, Alexis and Ruben Baraja. All six were regular starters last season, forcing Emery to utilise his squad to cover the gaps.

Predicting Valencia’s line-ups this season have been a job impossible for even Mystic Meg. In the league alone an astonishing 22 players have been used. Having two players in each position is a situation most clubs dream of, and for Emery to go on and use each player is a method seldom used in football these days.

In La Liga the manager has set his team up for the majority of games in a 4-4-1-1 formation, deviating slightly to 4-2-3-1 against Barcelona. It seems very likely he will use one of these formations for the trip to Ibrox.

Cesar Sanchez has been the only ever present so far. After spells at Real Madrid and Real Zaragoza, and the ill fated time at Tottenham Hotspur, the goalkeeper moved back to Spain at the tender age of 38 to make the number one jersey his own. Still playing at a very high level his performances have boosted the performances of the back four.

With Portuguese international Miguel out injured, Bruno will start at right back. He’s a tough tackling no frills full back, more defensive minded than Miguel although he sometimes gets caught out of position.

In the centre should be the pairing of David Navarro and Ricardo Costa. Navarro is more famous for the seven month ban he received after the much documented fight against Inter Milan, but he remains a no-nonsense, solid defender who is very strong and good in the air. His partner Ricardo Costa is one of Emery’s six new signings.

He spent half of last season on loan at Lille in France where he played at centre back and left back and has the ability to play anywhere along the back four. This positional knowledge helps out the defence no end, able to fill gaps left by the full backs he then has the pace to track attackers down the wing.

The choice of left-back on Wednesday could help determine not only how Valencia attack, but also could show a weakness that Rangers could exploit. Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba have been fighting for the position so far this season. On Saturday against Barcelona both were picked to link up down the left hand side and though the original team sheet showed Mathieu at left back with Alba slightly further forward, throughout the game both swapped positions taking it in turns to defend and attack.

Emery’s decision to leave out Juan Mata made this selection possible but with Mata’s return on Wednesday almost guaranteed this leaves the kind of selection headache managers dream about.

Whether playing as a defender or a midfielder Mathieu is not scared to go forward and join the attack. Against Malaga and Bursaspor he was used in a defensive role but very often when the team on the attack it is no surprise to find him in line with Valencia’s forwards.

With only 11 minutes of the game gone against Barcelona, Mathieu (red) had already decided to break forward. Nearly on the shoulder of the last defender, with Alba (yellow) pushing up trying to release Mathieu down the wing, there is acres of space behind the full back which forwards and midfielders could easily use against them. In these situations the alertness of Ricardo Costa is hugely important.

Against Bursaspor, Mathieu did a fantastic job of controlling playmaker Volkan Sen though. Whenever the ball was played into his feet Mathieu was touch tight and he frustrated the Turkish international giving him very little time on the ball. When Valencia pushed forward looking for more goals though, Sen started to exploit the space Mathieu vacated.

A simple ball over the top caught Mathieu (red) out of position in one instance. Costa (yellow) had to come across quickly to close down Sen (blue) and stop the attack. In this situation Bursaspor didn’t do a good job in supporting the attack, as a darting run from any of the midfielders could have exploited the space left by Costa and easily have led to a great chance. Rangers’ midfielders will need to be alert when Costa covers Mathieu’s position, Steven Davis is wonderful at breaking from the midfield and as his thunderous shot against Motherwell proved he is also good enough to take advantage of any space given.

Unai Emery might decide to play Jordi Alba on Wednesday to keep things tight. Not picking Mathieu does however mean Valencia are without a player who has great aerial presence and is a very technically sound defender. The team would also miss his ability on the ball, his pacy breaks from the back and his aptitude for turning defence into attack very quickly.

Alba too has these abilities, although not to the extent of Mathieu. The young full back was extremely impressive while marking Lionel Messi on Saturday, showing he has the speed and the strength to keep up with one of the world’s best. His size could be his downfall though. Up against Lafferty, Broadfoot or Whittaker, Rangers would win the aerial battle giving them an effective out-ball. Mathieu at 6 foot 3 wouldn’t be as easily beaten.

Defensively, the full back area is one that Rangers could punish if worked properly, Valencia’s midfield worked very hard to close down Barcelona and win the ball back, with four midfielders (yellow) closely chasing the ball, and the defenders’ attention also trained on the ball.

This led to Bruno (pink), being caught in a central area, unaware of David Villa (red) pushing down the flank followed closely by Maxwell (blue). The majestic skills of Iniesta (green) beat the midfield and he was able to find Villa in acres of space supplying him with a chance to shoot on goal.

With Steven Naismith in good form recently, it is important he is wise to Bruno’s positioning and tries to use this to his and Rangers advantage. It is obvious Rangers don’t have the quality in midfield that Barcelona do, but the space is there to be exploited.

One of Valencia’s great strengths this season has been the pressure the midfield puts on the ball, turning this into countless fast break situations. Emery will likely play with a four in midfield, favouring a creative player to support the front man rather than playing forwards Aduriz and Soldado up front together. The latter, now fully fit after missing the start of the season will lead the line, the five players picked to play behind him will be the result of hours and hours of discussion and deliberation.

Nine players have occupied these positions so far this season, each bringing their own attributes to Valencia’s style and success on the counter attack. One of the first names on the team sheet will likely be Juan Mata, who was rested against Barca with the trip to Ibrox in mind.

Mata was let go by Real Madrid and signed for Valencia on a free in 2008 and for two years he has quietly been making a name for himself. Now out of the shadows of Villa and Silva this could be Mata’s breakout year. Undoubtedly talented on the ball, he has the ability to play off the front man in a creative role but seems to be more effective starting from the left and breaking into the box.

His excellent finishing abilities have led to 26 goals for the club so far and at only 22 it will not be long before the big club vultures are back at the Mestalla waving their chequebooks. Right now he is a Valencia player and one to be very wary of.

Whoever Emery picks to support Soldado and Mata, be it Pablo Hernandez, Manuel Fernandes, Ever Banega or Tino Costa, Rangers must not give the ball needlessly away in midfield or up front as many of Valencia’s goals this season have come from breathtaking fast breaks.

 

When Valencia go forward, regardless of their formation, there are always players in support. Against Malaga when it was 4-4-1-1 four players broke forward providing options left and right of the man in possession. Then, against Barcelona, while playing 4-2-3-1 a very similar break saw four players bombing forward giving the man on the ball choices and leading to the opening goal, Right midfielder Pablo (red) cut in from the right to get on the end of Mathieu’s cutback, Soldado’s run (blue) to the back post caught the attention of Puyol and Maxwell gave Pablo the space needed to apply the finish.

Another great example of Valencia’s strength in attack was the fourth goal against Bursaspor. With 14 minutes to go and already three goals to the good, Valencia won the ball back next to their own bye-line (red). Three passes and 10 seconds later, Soldado (yellow) found himself one on one with the goalkeeper and had an easy job to make it 4-0. It was a fine example of the counter-attacking style the Spanish team have shown so often this season.

Undoubtedly Wednesday night will be a very tough test for Walter Smith’s team, and if Rangers are to have a genuine hope of advancing from the Group Stage some kind of result will be needed. At home, the Rangers fans will want a victory and this pressure to go forward could fall straight into Valencia’s style and strengths. Rangers can’t afford to sit back and defend but caution must be taken when attacking in numbers.

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