Paddy Spicer Ward looks at Valencia’s promising start in La Liga and whether they can relive past glories…
Valencia’s start to their La Liga campaign this year is not dissimilar to that made by Liverpool and Roma last season. Unfancied former giants in their respective leagues, Valencia will hope their season pans out more like that of their fellow countrymen Atlético, rather than falling at the end of marathon seasons as Roma and Liverpool did.
The youthful Los Che side have come flying out of the blocks, sitting just two points behind Barcelona, with an unexpected 3-0 loss away to Deportivo at La Riazor pencilled in alongside six wins and two draws. The lack of European football is no doubt helping the men from Spain’s third largest city, allowing more time working on tactics to nullify the opposition and gel together their new look squad.
This summer saw no less than 20 players depart from the newly revamped Mestalla, and it was not simply a case of trimming the squad, as there were 14 incomers as well. Most remarkably is that most of the 20 who departed were the mainstay of Valencia’s starting XI last season, with Juan Bernat and Jeremy Mathieu being the most high profile exits.;Victor Ruiz, Jonas, Andres Guardado, Eduardo Vargas and Phillipe Senderos a number of other notable changes. The change saw players with an average age of around 27 leave, with the incomers much younger at 23.
Despite new billionaire owner Peter Lim promising to splash the cash and return Valencia to their former glory, it hasn’t actually kicked in yet. The acquisition of Alvaro Negredo on loan, and an agreement to buy him outright next summer, is a signal of the spending power taking hold, but the grand total of around £40 million spent on players is only a few million more than they brought in.
So how exactly have Valencia managed to turn themselves from mid-table regulars to (whisper it quietly) title contenders? Well their newly installed manager Nuno Espirito Santo – aka, Nuno – has played a big part, not only buying cleverly and picking out some bargains, but having faith in the young players in his squad, something they have begun to repay to the former Rio Ave boss.
One such player is Paco Alcacer, who has gone from making the breakthrough into the first team last season to becoming one of the first names of the team sheet, and now a full international. The striker has bagged three goals in his first four games for Spain. A combination of an injury to Negredo and Alcacer’s fine form meant the new signing from Man City only made his debut in the closing minutes of last weekend’s win over Elche. Pablo Piatti and another new face, Rodrigo, once of Bolton Wanderers and more recently of Benfica, make up a very mobile and technically sound front three.
Another import from Portugal, Andre Gomes has really impressed in the engine room alongside club captain Dani Parejo, despite playing only a handful of games for Benfica in the last two years. Interestingly, both Gomes and Rodrigo’s player rights are owned by Lim, who arranged deals for them to relocate and play for his new club.
With Rodrigo up front, and Parejo in midfield it is only fitting that Valencia also play someone who failed to make the cut in England at the back as well, with one time Liverpool defender Antontio Barragan making the right back slot his own. The solid centre back partnership of Nicolas Otamendi and Shkodran Mustafi has leaked just eight goals in nine games, with three of those coming in that upset in A Coruña.
Of course the biggest test of Valencia’s resolve will be when they come up against one of the big two, but a 3-1 win over Atlético is evidence of their title credentials. The fearlessness of the young team is undoubtedly a factor in this, but only time will tell if they can keep their momentum rolling forward. Negredo could have a big role in this, offer more of a physical presence, a change from the front three that has started this season so well and with money in the bank; January could see further strengthening.
Valencia are still a long way away from the days of league and continental success, the days of Terra Mítica on their shirts, Rafa Benitez in the dugout and John Carew upfront but this season so far has offered a welcome break from their massive inconstancy of the last few seasons.
Real, Barcelona and Atlético were favourites for three of the four Champions League places available at the start of the season, and competition for that fourth place will be rife in Spain. Europa League champions Sevilla are looking strong but Real Sociedad and Athletic Club have struggled to gain any momentum, languishing in the bottom half of the table.
Valencia may not win the title, and the wheels may come off and they could struggle to qualify for the Champions League, but it is refreshing to see the them start the season in such a positive fashion and at this stage be back where they belong, challenging the other giant clubs in Spain.