Second plays first this weekend as Valencia take on Barcelona
Valencia serious contenders in La Liga as Marcelino puts faith in science and youth
There’s a joke going around Valencia that if Catalonia really does break away and Barcelona leave the Primera Liga, then Valencia would be top.
Unbeaten Valencia are second, six points clear of Real Madrid in third. The turnaround had been as swift as it has been surprising. Valencia finished 12th in each of the past two seasons and have gone through 12 managers in five years.
The latest is Marcelino Garcia Toral, effective at Villarreal until a prompt disagreement and departure in 2016. He is working well with Mateo Alemany, the newly appointed sporting director who was previously at Mallorca and helped bring the likes of Samuel Eto’o through.
The pair have total control on football matters at Valencia, without interference from presidents, former players or insiders. There’s a new chairman too, Anil Murthy, who works under Singaporean owner Peter Lim.
Marcelino, a former player and sport science convert, weighs the players daily and has them fitter than many can recall at any time in their careers. This is a factor in Valencia's renaissance, but there are others, too.
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Unlike in previous seasons when David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata, Roberto Soldado, Raul Albiol, Jeremy Mathieu, Nicolas Otamendi and Andre Gomes all departed in big money transfers, the club didn’t sell any of their star names this summer.
They still have vast debts and a half-built new 75,000 seater stadium on the north fringe of a city that was hit harder by Spain’s economic crisis than any other. The flagship sporting events which helped raise Valencia’s profile from a Formula One race to an ATP 500 tennis tournament and the Americas Cup have long gone. The public television channel has also been axed, while Levante’s relegation in 2016 hardly helped the mood among fans of the city’s other leading side, but the recovery is real and Valencia intend to restart work on their new home.
Valencia football club is blessed with enviable attributes. The club is a factory for producing quality left-backs, with Juan Bernat (Bayern Munich) and Jordi Alba (Barcelona) sold for big profits, while Jose Luis Gaya, 22, and Toni Lato, 20, are the latest outstanding home-grown talents.
Attendances are up and back above 40,000 on average for home games in the 55,000 capacity Mestalla as disillusioned fans return. Sunday’s game against Barcelona is a sell-out. If it’s half as good as Valencia’s 2-2 draw at Real Madrid in September, it will be gripping.
There are so many reasons for Valencia fans to be positive. Flush with confidence, captain Dani Parejo looks like he believes in himself, and his club, again. The same goes for Spanish forward Rodrigo, who arrived from Benfica, where he played in consecutive Europa League finals, as a prolific goalscorer but got caught up in a Valencian mess. Italian striker Simeone Zaza, an outcast at West Ham United, has seven league goals this term, two more than he scored in all of last season. Both have been recalled to their national sides.
Valencia make intelligent use of the loan system, using their status as a big club in a great city in a top league to attract emerging or fringe players from richer clubs elsewhere. Midfielder Andreas Pereira, 21, on loan from Manchester United, is one example. He is getting the minutes on the pitch he wasn’t getting at Old Trafford.
Wide man Goncalo Guedes is a year younger and one of the best players in a side which has scored 32 league goals in 12 games. He is a also getting regular playing time in a 4-4-2 system which would have been unlikely had he stayed at Paris Saint-Germain. Midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia, so impressive for Sevilla, less so for Inter Milan, is thriving again in Spain.
There is unity among a young squad who socialise together. Midfielder Carlos Soler, 20, has been exceptional and is being watched closely by Manchester United, among others.
Valencia’s objective is a top four finish. That seemed ambitious at the start of the season, given their struggles and the quality of the opposition. It doesn’t seem quite so ambitious now.
And maybe, knowing Valencia’s strength, that is why Barcelona rested Lionel Messi for their Uefa Champions League match away to Juventus on Wednesday. Because for now, the Catalans are absolutely part of La Liga's title race, but Valencia are their greatest challengers so far this season.