Barcelona can move seven points clear at the top of La Liga on Sunday with a win over second-placed Valencia but coach Ernesto Valverde warned against drawing conclusions in the title race at this stage of the campaign.
Valverde’s side are 18 games unbeaten in all competitions and qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League in midweek after a goalless draw at Juventus.
In La Liga, they’re four points clear of Valencia and seven ahead of Real Madrid, who beat Malaga on Saturday.
Valencia, under new coach Marcelino, are in good form as well. They have not yet been beaten in the league and are on a nine-game winning streak in all competitions.
“Whatever happens in the match, there will still be a long way to go in La Liga,” Valverde said in a news conference before the trip to Mestalla. “And regardless of Valencia’s form, it’s always a big game against them.
“If we win, mathematically speaking it will be important in La Liga, but I insist: the season’s just getting started and there’s a long way to go.”
Valverde, who coached Valencia briefly in 2013, admitted to being slightly taken aback at just how well his former club have started the season.
“I am relatively surprised even though I expected them to have a good year,” he added. “They have a clear plan, good players and a good coach.
“They don’t play [European football] in the week, which is good for their fitness, and when you add all that together good things can happen.
“They have [Goncalo] Guedes, [Simone] Zaza, Rodrigo [Moreno], [Carlos] Soler, all players who play very high and block the ball being played out from the back. They have the best counter-attack in the league and controlling that will be key.”
Valverde has just 17 first team players available for the game, with things looking particularly thin in defence.
Both Gerard Pique (suspended) and Javier Mascherano (injured) are missing, which has led to a call-up for B team defender David Costas, although Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen will start the game.
“Everyone thinks it’s strange to play two left-footed centre-backs, but when you play with two right-footed defenders, it seems completely normal,” Valverde said of the complaints about pairing Umtiti with Vermaelen, who is set to make his first league appearance for Barca since March 2016.
“Both Umtiti and Vermaelen are internationals and I have faith in them both. David Costas will come with us from Barca B, too. We’re well-covered.”
Elsewhere, Sergi Roberto and Andre Gomes both returned to training this week, although neither is fit to travel to Valencia.
But Barca will still head south in good form and in good spirits, too, following Saturday’s confirmation that Lionel Messi has signed his new contract with the club through until 2021.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.