MADRID - Cash-strapped Valencia have defied all expectations to hit the top in La Liga and are well placed to take advantage of Barcelona's poor home form when they visit the Nou Camp on Saturday.
Valencia's precarious financial position forced them into a fire sale of their assets at the end of last season, and David Villa's transfer to Barca for 40 million euros was tipped as the first step in a painful period of re-adjustment for the club.
Villa, who equalled Raul's scoring record for Spain in Scotland on Tuesday with his 44th goal, exited along with David Silva, Nikola Zigic and Carlos Marchena, but two months into the campaign and a new-look Valencia have silenced the doom-mongers to lead the standings with 16 points from six games.
Misfiring champions Barcelona are three points back in fourth.
Valencia's astute, low-cost moves in the transfer market have paid off and forwards Roberto Soldado and Aritz Aduriz have quickly found their range, while Spain winger Juan Mata has been given greater freedom to roam.
Coach Unai Emery has played down their strong start, but there are early signs that a third team might be able to challenge Real Madrid and Barcelona's hegemony in Spain this season.
"They are doing well. They are a great club and even if two or three players leave, teams like this never suffer," Villa told the Barca website.
Villa returned from international duty with a sore knee but has been passed fit to play on Saturday. His team-mate Xavi remains a doubt as he continues to recover from the strained tendons that kept him out of the recent Euro 2012 qualifiers.
Barcelona have struggled at home in the league so far losing 2-0 to promoted Hercules, labouring to a 1-0 win over Sporting Gijon and being held 1-1 by Real Mallorca last time out.
"It could be (a good time to play them)," Mata told daily Sport on Thursday. "Also, because it always seems that games just after breaks for internationals are the most difficult for them."
Real Madrid are one point ahead of Barca in third and visit 10th-placed Malaga in Saturday's late game.
Jose Mourinho's side will be hoping the 6-1 pummelling of Deportivo La Coruna last time out, will have ended their doubts in front of goal.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema both received boosts to morale by scoring with their national teams during the week, but the bad news was that Spain defender Sergio Ramos returned with an ankle problem which makes him doubtful for Saturday.
Form-team Villarreal, who are second with 15 points, can build on their five consecutive victories with a win away to Hercules in the Monday match.