VALENCIA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 19: Head Coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid reacts during the La Liga match between Valencia and Real Madrid at Estadio Mestalla on November 19, 2011 in Valencia, Spain. Real Madrid won 3-2. (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Spanish giants Real Madrid will be looking to start their title defense in La Liga off with a bang as they take on Valencia at the Bernabéu on Sunday night. While typically Valencia would represent a difficult fixture for the capital side, injuries and a new coach may make them easy prey for a fully-fit Madrid side that obliterated AC Milan 5-1 just a couple of weeks ago.
In the same fixture last season, Valencia proved to be difficult to break down, holding Madrid to a draw in the Bernabéu in early April. However, los blancos have won each of the five previous meetings between the sides, and Valencia has not won in Madrid since 2008.
For better or for worse, the club decided at the end of last season to part ways with Unai Emery, who had proved himself an able manager and a skillful tactician. His replacement, former Valencia defender Mauricio Pellegrino, has excellent pedigree as an assistant coach at Liverpool and Inter, but has never before managed at the senior level. Going toe-to-toe with Mourinho in his first game in charge is something of a baptism of fire for Pellegrino, and while he will be motivated to make a name for himself and set the tone early in his tenure, it may represent a bridge too far for the novice coach.
The squad sheet will be another headache for Pellegrino, as key midfielders Ever Banega and ex-Real Madrid man Sergio Canales are both long-term casualties and goalkeeper Guaita, who had a stellar game in the 0-0 draw last season, is also ruled out with injury. Another former madridista, striker Roberto Soldado, is a possible absence as he struggles to recover from a hamstring injury. Jordi Alba, the Spanish international, has already left the club for Barcelona, but a host of new signings have arrived, many of whom may make their debuts in the season opener.
Real Madrid have no notable absences from the first team as Pepe and Higuaín have both recovered from minor injuries suffered while on international duty.
Mourinho is expected to line up with his standard 4-2-3-1 formation, with Arbeloa, Ramos, Pepe and either Marcelo or Coentrão in defense, Alonso and Khedira in midfield and Özil behind the attacking trident of Ronaldo, Di María and either Benzema or Higuaín. One might expect Marcelo to be on the bench as he has just returned to the squad from the Olympics, as well as Higuaín, who suffered a head injury during international duty with Argentina.
It is difficult to speculate about Valencia's line-up as there are so many injuries and new players, in addition to a new coach. Obviously Jordi Alba will be missed at left-back, where he would have helped guard against the marauding runs of Di María. New signing Pereira will be attempting to hold his international teammate, the indomitable Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other flank, which should be an interesting battle. In the absence of Valencia's two playmakers, Banega and Canales, it is unclear if Gago will be taking over that mantle and attempting to show his former employers that they made a mistake in letting him go. Whether Pellegrino's strategy will be to park the bus with two holding midfielders to screen his weakened back four and second-choice goalkeeper, picking off loose balls in midfield and breaking quickly, or whether Valencia will try to compete with Madrid for possession (which seems like a fool's errand given their available squad), we cannot say. Either way, it looks to be an interesting match.
On paper, an extremely fit, motivated and excellent Madrid side should make short work of this fragmented and heavily remodeled Valencia team, but Los Che are always dangerous and could prove a banana skin if Mourinho's men become complacent. However, knowing that Barcelona will most likely be notching up an easy three points against Real Sociedad at home an hour after their kickoff should be motivation enough, and the players will want to set the tone early and crank up the pressure on their hated rivals as soon as possible.