x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Valencia keep chasing glory

Champions League finalists 10 years ago, the club's bubble almost burst, but they can still challenge Europe's best.

Valencia's Jordi Alba, left, chases after Werder Bremen's Aaron Hunt in the first leg at the Mestalla last week.
Valencia's Jordi Alba, left, chases after Werder Bremen's Aaron Hunt in the first leg at the Mestalla last week.

Ten years ago, Valencia were on their way to the Champions League final and a Paris meeting with Real Madrid. They put five goals past Lazio in the quarter finals at a time when the then free-spending Italians were the European Super Cup holders, boasting Juan Sebastian Veron and Marcelo Salas in their ranks.

In the semi-final, Barcelona were the next obstacle to Los Ches' first ever European Cup final appearance. Valencia triumphed 4-1 at the Mestalla, with Gaizka Mendieta in such magnificent form that Lazio paid ?48million (Dh240m) for him a year later. Valencia, caught in the headlights, were overawed by the occasion of the final, and Real Madrid won 3-0. Although beaten, Valencia remained one of the strongest teams in world football and a season later, they knocked Arsenal out at the quarter-final stage and Leeds United - now of England's third tier - in the semis.

Roberto Ayala, Ruben Baraja, Santiago Canizares, John Carew and Kily Gonzalez became household names as Valencia reached a second consecutive Champions League final. Bayern Munich, vengeful after their injury-time defeat to Manchester United in the 1999 final, awaited in Milan's San Siro. A determined Mendieta gave Valencia the lead after three minutes, but a second-half Stefan Effenberg spot-kick took the game to penalties, which the Bavarians won 5-4.

Valencia were crushed, but remained true to their defensively solid aggressive-when-needed philosophy, combined with the deft talents of player like Ayala. Season after season, the team from Spain's third biggest city of 800,000 brought players through the youth ranks and, thanks to their gates, were able to spend when needed. They were Spanish champions in 2002 and 2004, the year they also won the Uefa Cup. To continue the growth and stand on a more level footing with Spain's big two, a stunning new 75,000 capacity stadium was proposed and work began.

Then the dream died. A recession, Spain's property bubble bursting, political in-fighting at the club resulting in too many coaches and too many new players nearly saw Valencia go out of existence. After finishing 10th in 2008 - their lowest position since 1997 - they teetered on the brink of collapse until they were rescued by the local government. With a fine young coach in Unai Emery and a more stable political structure, Valencia have steadied since. The conveyor belt of youthful talent never slowed. David Silva, the Spanish international midfielder, came through the ranks, as did the elegant left winger Jordi Alba, following in the footsteps of David Albelda and David Navarro.

The intelligent signings of emerging talents also continued. Top scorer David Villa had signed from Zaragoza, Juan Mata from Real Madrid's reserves. Ever Banega, this season's revelation, came from Boca Juniors. An outstanding team spirit, partly forged by adversity, is one reason why players like Villa have stayed at the Mestalla for so long. Valencia have adopted an "us against the world" mentality that has been good enough to push them up to third in the Primera Liga this season and a good shout for Champions League qualification.

Emery's side have performed solidly in this season's Europa League with victories over Genoa, Club Brugges and Lille, but last Thursday's 1-1 home draw with Werder Bremen in the last-16 leaves them with a tough task for tonight's second leg in Northern Germany. Villa will be back from an injury which ruled him out of Sunday's 3-0 defeat by Barcelona, but Valencia will miss two of their other Davids - Albelda and Navarro. With Banega and Pablo Hernandez also out through suspension, it will be tough, but it could have been much worse.

Mata, another of the club's Spanish internationals, who scored Valencia's goal in the home leg, said: "We weren't the real Valencia for part of that match, and Werder had chances to kill the tie off completely - thankfully they didn't take them. "I think their goal knocked us back because we all realised the importance of them getting the away goal. But what I'll take from the game is how we responded in the second half after Ever Banega's red card. We played well, created chances and finished the match with a good feeling about what we had achieved."

Bremen have problems of their own and could be without influential midfielders Torsten Frings and Mesut Ozil, but Mata is expecting a tough test. "German sides are always really competitive," he said. "You think they are out of a game and suddenly they hit you with one isolated attack and score." Valencia have yet to hit the same heights as a decade ago, but it is a wonder they still exist, fighting and challenging the top teams despite all the setbacks which have come their way.

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