x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Mind over Mata for Valencia's Pablo Hernandez

The Spanish midfielder talks to Andy Mitten about tonight's crunch Champions League encounter against his best friend's Chelsea team.

Pablo Hernandez is best friends with Chelsea's Juan Mata, having roomed together at Valencia. The pair are on opposite sides tonight in the Champions League.
Pablo Hernandez is best friends with Chelsea's Juan Mata, having roomed together at Valencia. The pair are on opposite sides tonight in the Champions League.

"Pablo 19" states the graffiti on the brickwork outside Valencia's training ground to the north of Spain's third biggest city of 800,000. "Mata eres el major"(Mata is the best) adds the message on an adjacent brick.

Pablo Hernandez and Juan Mata were - and still are - the best of friends. They roomed and played together at Valencia for years as they progressed through the youth ranks.

They were both called up to the Spanish squad for the 2009 Confederations Cup, two of Valencia's brightest attacking talents alongside teammates David Villa, David Silva, Raul Albiol and Carlos Marchena.

Tonight, they will meet on opposite sides when Chelsea entertain Valencia in the most important Champions League game of the season so far.

"I swapped shirts with Juan here in Valencia and we'll swap again in London," says Hernandez, a spiky haired, 5ft 8ins diminutive figure in a team not short of giants. "I'm pleased that he's doing well in London. He deserves all the success and so does one of my other roommates, David Silva."

Hernandez, 26, joined Valencia from his hometown club of Castellon - a city 60 kilometres north on Spain's Mediterranean coast - when he was 17.

"I'd supported Castellon as a child, they used to play in the top league and I would watch with my father when I was a small boy, but not now. Villarreal got their money and Castellon now play in Spain's third tier."

Villarreal's money and burgeoning support hurt their former rivals and it is a sore point in Castellon, the town which developed Gaizka Mendieta. Like Hernandez, he also went on to play for Valencia and Spain.

Hernandez made his Valencia first-team debut at 21. It would be his only appearance before loan moves to second division Cadiz and first division Getafe. He did so well on loan that Luis Aragones named him in Spain's provisional squad which would win the 2008 European Championships, but he did not make the final cut.

Hernandez returned to Valencia and began to make an impact in an attack which included Villa, Silva and Mata.

"We've had some really great players at this club," he says. "But we understand that we have to sell our best players because of the economic situation here."

Valencia mirror Spain's financial woes. They are in debt and can only hark back to more successful times before the current crisis. Their half-built 75,000 seater stadium is an unwanted, yet perfect, metaphor. Work stopped almost three years ago on a project planned in more prosperous days for, as the silhouetted trophies etched on the wall of their media room show, Los Che were league champions in 2002 and 2004, the year they also won the Uefa Cup.

They were Champions League finalists in successive years in 2000 and 2001, one of the finest teams in Europe. But that was then. Barcelona and Real Madrid have become ever more dominant on the field, part in thanks to being so powerful off it.

The leading pair received €140 million (Dh688.8m) in domestic television money last season, Valencia got just €42m, less than the lowest paid team in England's Premier League.

"Something has to change because it's not equal," says Hernandez. "We say at the start of each season that we aim to win the league, but when you look at the gap between the second and third team you realise that it's almost impossible. Barcelona are a great team though and they're not just the best team in Spain, but the best in the world."

It is to Valencia's great credit that they have finished third in each of the last two seasons.

"Despite selling a great player each season, we still compete and reach the Champions League," says Hernandez. "This season has been our best start for a long time. We drew here against Barca in a really good game and lost narrowly to Madrid 3-2. But we're still really close to Madrid and Barcelona."

So what is the secret? Jose Mourinho, the Real coach, recently took Unai Emery, his opposite number at Valencia, to one side and congratulated him on keeping his side so competitive. Mourinho and Barca's Pep Guardiola regularly spend €60m each summer; Valencia have to sell.

"We've still got good players, still have a good rhythm and we haven't changed our style," says Hernandez. "We still play good football, try to dominate games and be quick in attack. We've maintained a great togetherness in the squad, despite all the changes."

Hernandez's pace and trickery is crucial. He can beat a man and he is among the best crossers in Spain. Valencia have bought intelligently too.

"Young, talented players with great quality have arrived like Soldado, Parejo, Jordi Alba, Sergio Canales and Victor Ruiz," says Hernandez.

As well as becoming a destination for Spaniards deemed not quite good enough for Barca or Madrid, Valencia have scouted well abroad, attracting players such as the Argentines Tino Costa and Ever Banega, plus the French internationals Adi Rami and Jeremy Mathieu.

That is not to say Valencia are without problems. Their coach spent his press conference before Saturday's victory over Espanyol - their seventh in eight games - barely able to hide his displeasure at the conduct of his one-time star defender Miguel. The Portuguese right-back, one of the best in the world only two years ago, has allegedly turned up for training late too many times after being spotted in Valencia's discos. He was in one until 6.30am last Monday morning before rolling in for training 90 minutes late.

Miguel's tardiness is not typical of the team and Emery will get rid of the player if they cannot sell him. The money from the Portuguese international would come in useful but while Valencia's finances have slumped, they have, at least, enjoyed stability with their coach.

"He's been here for four years, which is a long time in Spain," says the winger. Emery is Valencia's longest serving coach since Alfredo di Stefano 40 years ago.

Valencia worked hard for their Champions League place and the associated riches are appreciated more than at any club in western Europe, so it was disappointing that they started their European campaign poorly with two draws followed by a defeat.

"Losing to Leverkusen was tough because we were leading and then they scored two quick goals," says Hernandez. A vengeful Valencia would beat the Germans 3-1 "and then we scored seven against Genk in the last game". That 7-0 victory remains the biggest in the competition so far this season.

Hernandez has featured in all five European games and it is easy to see why his manager has faith in him. Man of the match against Manchester United at the Mestella last season, he also scored at Old Trafford as his side became one of the few teams to take points off the English champions and eventual finalists.

Both Chelsea and Valencia have eight points from five games so far, one fewer than the group leaders Bayer Leverkusen. The Germans will be expected to get at least a point against the group's weakest side, Genk, tonight in Belgium, which will mean that only one from Valencia or Chelsea can advance to the last 16. Only a win or a 0-0 draw will do for Chelsea, but they are still favourites to beat Valencia.

"We know it's not going to be complicated," Hernandez says. "Chelsea are one of the strongest teams in Europe and always reach the later stages of the Champions League, but we will try and win. We won't change our style and we won't try and get a draw because that's too risky.

"We're in form, too, and Chelsea are not. Maybe that will be a factor because we travel with confidence, just as we did to Manchester one year ago. We're not afraid. We want three points because we want to win the group."

Chelsea have other Spaniards. Oriol Romeu, a summer signing from Barcelona's B team, has been favoured over John Obi Mikel and Raul Meireles in recent weeks. And there is Fernando Torres.

"I know things are not going well for him, but he's a great player," says Hernandez. "He was a great player for Atletico and Liverpool. I think he will demonstrate that he's a quality player at Chelsea and I also think that Juan Mata will be good for him by creating chances for him."

Would Hernandez like to follow his compatriots and play in England?

"I like English football and I think the English and Spanish leagues are the best two in the world. I'm enjoying myself at Valencia though, just as David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata enjoyed it here."

The decision to sell did not rest solely with those players, just as it will not with Valencia players such as Jordi Alba and Roberto Soldado. A major influence on whether more Valencia stars need to be sold will be the result tonight in London.

sports@thenational.ae

Chelsea v Valencia, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +4