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Tuesday January 23 2018
Mestalla meeting holds the key

Real Madrid's trip to Valencia on Saturday could prove crucial in this season's top four race, as Colin Millar writes.

With Barcelona 11 points clear at the top of La Liga, attention is now starting to turn to the race for the European places. This weekend’s standout fixture sees struggling Real Madrid take on Valencia – this season’s surprise highfliers, who have been hit by a spell of inconsistent form.

Marcelino’s side navigated the first 13 league games of the season without defeat, including a club record eight successive victories, but have lost four of their following seven outings. January reinforcements were vital yet so far, the sole arrival has been striker Luciano Vietto from Atletico Madrid, with worries beginning to mount at the other end of the pitch. Without a clean sheet in eight games, Jeison Murillo has been sidelined with injury while Gabriel Paulista and Ruben Vezo – the pair who started Saturday’s defeat at Las Palmas – are both ruled out through suspension after picking up red cards in Gran Canaria.

Carlos Soler - another absentee – netted in the pulsating 2-2 draw between the two sides at the Bernabeu in the second matchday of the season. In an end-to-end encounter, midfield duo Soler and Geoffrey Kondogbia both struck for Los Che sandwiched between two strikes from Marco Asensio as the spoils were shared. Plenty of goals and entertainment are expected in the Mestalla, with a full list of odds available on 888sport.

Madrid may have run out comfortable 7-1 victors over Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday yet it was only their second league victory in six and they lie 19 points behind Barca, and five behind Saturday’s opponents. Zinedine Zidane’s men do have a game in hand over all three sides above them (they also trail city neighbours Atletico by 8 points), meaning that a victory at the Mestalla would put them in pole position to eventually overtake Los Che once their rearranged fixture takes place.

However, the league title will not be staying at the Bernabeu beyond the current campaign and everybody knows it. Madrid have already dropped more points this season than they did in the entirety of their title winning run last time out, and they have only played half their matches. Their form has also been punctuated by draws against lower league opposition Fuenlabrada and Numancia in the Copa del Rey. A malaise appears to have set in over the club yet they will still believe the chances of success in both their domestic cup competition and the Champions League could rejuvenate their campaign.

Saturday’s clash could prove important for both sides with the knowledge that a defeat will leave both clubs looking over their shoulder at the chasing pack. Madrid are only one point clear of Villarreal and three of Sevilla – two sides who will consider anything other than a top four finish as somewhat of a disappointing campaign.

Valencia may hold the key advantage over all their rivals due to their lack of European football, freeing up their schedule significantly in the final three months of the campaign. Avoiding defeat on Saturday could set them up for what would be a remarkable top three finish.

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