Numancia and Real Valladolid square off in the Liga 123 playoff finals, with a place in Spain’s top tier the prize for the winners of the two-legged encounter. Tonight, Los Pajaritos in Soria is the scene of the first clash, with the José Zorrilla in Valladolid staging the return match on Saturday.
The teams have met twice already during the 2017/18 calendar, splitting the series one apiece. In December, Real Valladolid jumped out to an early 2-0 lead at home, but conceded three times inside the final 25 minutes to lose. Some semblance of revenge was obtained in May with a solitary goal from Borja Fernández with 13 minutes to play proving to be enough to edge them past Numancia. Overall, Pucela have won 10 of the previous 23 meetings between these clubs, losing seven and drawing six times.
Los Rojillos finished the season in sixth place, occupying the final playoff spot. They have enjoyed a strong season, spending the vast majority of the campaign in the top six and reaching the summit twice in the early months. Despite dropping to 10th, their lowest position of the season, they steadily climbed back into contention and earned their playoff berth with a 2-1 win over Cultural Leonesa in the final week of league play.
Real Valladolid looked dead and buried earlier in the season, languishing as far down as 12th during the winter. However, a change of coach saw Luis Cesár Sampedro replaced by Sergio González in April. This coincided with a revival which culminated in a 2-0 victory at home to Osasuna on the final day of the regular season to secure a fifth-placed finish and a seat at the playoff table.
There are numerous similarities between these two sides, so it is of little surprise that the neighbours in Castille and León meet in this crucial decider. As well as finishing within two points of each other, both sides are stronger in their own environment and have struggled away from home. Their home records are eerily similar; both teams posted identical 15 wins, three draws and four losses (including the first round of the playoffs), with Numancia’s +21 goal difference just one better than Real Valladolid’s. Numancia have not lost at Los Pajaritos since, ironically, Real Valladolid beat them by a single goal at the beginning of May and you have to go back to early March to find a previous home loss.
They have won three and drawn one of their previous five home matches, while their opponents have won three in a row at home following a loss and a draw. On the road, the teams have garnered just 10 wins between them. It could be argued for both squads that if they could have replicated their strong home performances away from their own territories, then they may well have been legitimate contenders for automatic promotion. However, one aspect where Real Valladolid may just have the edge is a late improvement in their away form. The 3-2 loss at Real Zaragoza in May is the only blot in their copy book in their last five trips out, a marked improvement under the Sergio era which has seen them win 80% of their recent away fixtures. This will stand them in good stead for a tricky first leg in Soria.
Leading the line for Jagoba Arrasate’s men is Manu del Moral, who has bagged 8 goals this campaign but the impressive Guillermo is their top scorer with 9 from midfield and has scored twice in the last three matches. Both of these have come inside the opening seven minutes, so Real Valladolid will do well to guard against another fast start. Guillermo popped up with five minutes remaining of their clash at the José Zorrilla in December to bag the winner. Numancia have strength in depth in the goal scoring charts as Higinio Marín and Pere Milla have both weighed in with six apiece.
Real Valladolid boast talismanic striker and league top-scorer, Jaime Mata, who has proved to be the difference so often this season for Pucela. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it is difficult to see where else goals will come from in the team. A key to the game for Numancia is stifling the opportunities for the prolific hitman but, with 34 goals to his name already this season and five in as many matches, there are few teams who have been successful in doing so. Less heralded, but just as important to the team’s rhythm, is Pablo Hervías who provides Mata with key assistance and has recently chipped in with two stunning freekicks in recent weeks. The first, at home to Osasuna, set the table for a victory that would ultimately secure their playoff place and he repeated the trick the following week in the first round with an almost carbon copy strike against Sporting.
With both teams so strong at home, the onus will be on the host side in each match to prevail and a tight affair is expected over the two matches. Real Valladolid are averaging over two goals per game in the confines of the José Zorrilla while Numancia have struggled to find the net consistently on their travels (0.95 goals per away match) so a positive result in the first leg tonight is crucial for them to have the best chance of being the third and final team to ascend to La Liga.