19:00 BST, Monday 20th August, Mestalla, Eleven Sports
The most exciting game of La Liga’s opening weekend sees last season’s runners-up Atletico travel to face revitalised Valencia. Los Che finished fourth last time out and have their sights firmly set on another successful season.
Atletico have seriously strengthened in the summer transfer market and are widely regarded as genuine contenders for the league title, already showing their potential with a thrilling 4-2 extra time victory over Real Madrid in last week’s UEFA Super Cup.
That said, Diego Simeone’s men will certainly not have it easy in the white-hot atmosphere of Mestalla. If any team in La Liga can match Atletico for intensity and work-rate it is Valencia, who won 13 of their 19 home league games last season and are entering the new campaign on a wave of optimism for the first time in years.
Atletico’s title credentials could not be given a more severe early test and, if they come through this encounter with three points, any lingering doubts over their capabilities will have been well and truly dispelled.
Last Time Out
Valencia 3-0 Bayer Leverkusen (Friendly)
Valencia wound up their pre-season preparations on a winning note with an impressive 3-0 victory over visiting Bayer Leverkusen last weekend.
Cheered on by a large Mestalla crowd on a balmy summer evening, Valencia were on top from the opening whistle and went ahead before the half-hour mark as striker Santi Mina curled a precise right-footed shot into the far corner from the edge of the box.
The lead was doubled five minutes later when Mina unselfishly squared to give fellow frontman Rodrigo Moreno a simple finish.
The scoring was completed in the latter stages when a deep cross was met by a towering far-post header from highly rated young substitute Kangin Lee, allowing Los Che to maintain their feel-good factor ahead of the opening weekend.
Real Madrid 2-4 Atletico Madrid (UEFA Super Cup)
Atletico got their competitive campaign off to a flying start in Estonia last week, riding on the back of two-goal striker Diego Costa to start the season by claiming silverware with a thrilling UEFA Super Cup victory over bitter rivals Real Madrid.
Costa needed only 50 seconds to open the scoring, showcasing his awesome power with a thumping solo strike.
The Spain striker later levelled to force extra time after Real had moved ahead through Karim Benzema and a penalty from Sergio Ramos.
Atletico were totally dominant in extra time, going 4-2 up through beautifully taken efforts from midfield duo Saul and Koke.
The extent of their superiority in the latter stages was enough to send a message, loud and clear, that they should be taken very seriously this season.
Marcelino has made several strong additions to his squad this summer and must decide whether to plunge signings such as Michy Batshuayi, Daniel Wass, Denis Cheryshev and Cristiano Piccini straight into the starting eleven or stick with the players who performed so well last season.
There are slight doubts over midfield powerhouse Geoffrey Kondogbia and left back Jose Gaya, but their return to training on Wednesday suggests they should be ready to face Atletico.
The game will come too soon, though, for Francis Coquelin.
Atletico Madrid Lineup
Angel Correa’s bright performance from the bench in the Super Cup may be enough to earn a place in the starting eleven, perhaps at the expense of Rodri, while Jose Maria Gimenez will hope for a return to the centre of defence at the expense of Stefan Savic
Simeone has confirmed that Filipe Luis will start at left back in place of Lucas Hernandez, in what could be the veteran Brazilian’s final game before a rumoured move to Paris St Germain.
Key Battle: Gabriel Paulista vs Diego Costa
There can be few scarier sights for defenders than Diego Costa in full flight. The ferocious frontman is full of confidence and desire in the wake of an awesome performance in last week’s UEFA Super Cup.
Not only did Costa score a superb goal in the first minute, charging past both Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, and unleashing a thunderous strike past Keylor Navas before forcing extra time with a close-range finish, he also waged war against the Real defence all night, not giving them a moment’s rest with his tireless and relentless running.
Stopping Costa when he’s in this kind of mood is close to impossible, and one man charged with doing so on Monday night will be Valencia centre back and fellow Brazilian Gabriel Paulista.
The pair know each other well: the defender was sent off during a particularly feisty encounter between Arsenal and Chelsea during their respective spells in England in September 2015. Sparks are sure to fly between them once again at Mestalla on Monday night.
Five into two doesn’t go
Among Valencia’s many reinforcements this summer are a pair of excellent strikers, Chelsea loanee Michy Batshuayi and French international Kevin Gameiro from none other than Atletico.
That duo adds to an already well-stocked forward line featuring Spain international Rodrigo, Santi Mina and feisty Italian Simone Zaza, giving manager Marcelino a happy selection dilemma ahead of the new season.
Rodrigo has attracted the interest of Real Madrid and may not be available to Marcelino for much longer but, while he remains at the club, he seems to be a sure starter.
The question is, who will accompany him? If it’s Batshuayi, the Belgian already has previous form against Atletico, netting a late winner for Chelsea during last season’s Champions League group phase.
Left or right for Lemar?
Thomas Lemar made a very bright competitive debut for Atletico in last week’s Super Cup win with the former Monaco man doing more than enough to suggest he will quickly become a key member of Diego Simeone’s starting eleven.
His greatest asset is running with the ball to create danger and Atletico attempted to exploit that strength by getting Lemar to drop into spaces in midfield and feeding him with short passes which allowed him to turn and run at the Real defence.
Interestingly, he started on the right wing before later switching to the left. The likely presence of debutant Cristiano Piccini in the right back slot for Valencia – a good player but one who is still adapting to his new teammates – could make that a fruitful route for Lemar on Monday night.
Prediction: Valencia 1-2 Atletico
What a game this should be. It’s easy to make arguments in favour of both teams, who enjoyed strong campaigns last season and have made excellent signings in the summer transfer market.
In the end, though, Atletico’s superlative defensive organisation and greater range of creative talents, especially from the bench, should be enough for them to sneak a narrow victory from what will surely be a pulsating Monday night encounter.
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