Soccer: Marcelino igniting hopes at Valencia
By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Valencia have been the butt of many jokes in La Liga in the past few seasons as they veered from one crisis to the next, but they could have the last laugh this campaign as they serve up exciting, swashbuckling football while remaining unbeaten.
Highly respected Spanish coach Marcelino has given the team a radical makeover which has seen them shoot up to second in the standings with four consecutive wins.
Their explosive form has reignited hopes they can return to the Champions League next season but they face a test of their mettle on Saturday against Sevilla, who have reached Europe's elite competition two years in a row.
Barcelona, who are four points above Valencia at the top of the standings, host basement club Malaga on Saturday while champions Real Madrid host Eibar on Sunday. Atletico Madrid will be looking to snap a run of four games without a win when they visit Celta Vigo.
Marcelino, who enjoyed consistent success with Villarreal until falling out with the board and leaving last year, was expected to bring some badly needed organisation to a team reeling from their worst defensive record ever after shipping 65 goals last season.
He got off to a positive start in keeping two clean sheets in his first three games but in the last month his team have transformed into an adventurous attacking outfit which has compensated for their still rusty defence.
Only Liga leaders Barcelona have scored more than their 21 goals in eight games.
Last week they won 6-3 at Real Betis in a magnificently chaotic game. Valencia went 4-0 up after 73 minutes but their old propensity for disaster reared its head as they conceded three goals in the space of five minutes and risked blowing their lead, but instead scored twice more at the end to rise to second.
"We have to avoid scares like this because the coach is too old for it," Marcelino said after a game newspaper El Mundo described as "blessed madness".
The dramatic encounter at Betis followed successive 3-2 wins, over Athletic Bilbao and then Real Sociedad where Marcelino injured a calf muscle celebrating Simone Zaza's late winning goal.
Marcelino is the club's 10th coach since 2012, when they parted ways with Unai Emery after consistently finishing in the top four.
They have only returned to the Champions League once since then as they followed a bizarre recruitment process that saw disastrous appointments such as Gary Neville, who had no club coaching experience, and Cesare Prandelli, who resigned after two months in charge.
Marcelino, however, has managed to galvanise Spain's fifth most successful team and ignited hopes of a return to the top four.
"He's a strong coach with a big character," said Italian striker Zaza, the team's top scorer with seven goals.
"But he's not an army general who won't speak to anyone, he likes to explain things and help you. He'll explain something and later you'll realise he was right."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)