Atletico Madrid brought about a breath of fresh air in La Liga after breaking the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona last season. This season it has been all the more exciting with Valencia having re-joined the elites after years of struggle.
Valencia started the modern century with lots of promise and were destined for greatness. Two Champions League finals in quick successions (2000-2001) and two La Liga titles in three years within 2004 took them to dizzy heights of success, but from there on it’s been a frustrating story for the past ten years.
It is in fact a sad story of an iconic club spiralling downwards, the root cause being the money or the lack of it. The City’s famous club, in an attempt to build a new stadium, have found themselves stuck in limbo for years, where they could neither sell their old one, the ageing Mestalla, nor proceed with the new construction.
At the same time, disastrous results on the pitch, instability off it, and poor transfers meant Valencia kept on losing their best players (David Silva, David Villa, Joaquin Sanchez, Juan Mata et al) while gargantuan debts had almost crippled them to the core.
At this juncture, Peter Lim, the Singapore businessman turned out to be their saviour, after he completed Valencia’s take-over earlier this season, overcoming numerous roadblocks.
When he took charge, the club was still in a miserable condition both on and off the pitch. At one side the club was saddled with over £200m debt, while on pitch they endured their worst ever season in their last six years, with no European football for the success-starved fans.
In that context, their journey so far is not only remarkable but awe-inspiring at the same time. With ten games left to go, Valencia find themselves third in the table, four points behind Real Madrid and all set to reclaim place for Champions League next year.
Peter Lim’s close association with super agent Jorge Mendes had seen Valencia completing some smart signings last summer. Benfica duo Andre Gomes and Rodrigo and Porto defender Nicolas Otamendi were the major arrivals from Portugal, while the club agreed a loan deal for Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo, with a view to make it permanent.
Under coach Nuno Espirito Santo (probably Lim’s best signing of the season) Valencia have found a leader who understands the spirit of the club and embodies the passion of the loyal fans.
He made sure that Valencia continue to give exposure to young talents graduating from the club’s famous academy. Paco Alcacer and Jose Gaya, the two most talented academy graduates, have been terrific this season, while a couple of exciting talents like Tropi and Ibanez are getting close to the first team call up as well.
The fabric of the team is built upon a core group of Spanish players – Gaya, Barragan, Javi Fuego, Dani Parejo, Paco, Negredo – which has helped the side forging a great team spirit.
Nuno came under strong criticism from both press and the fans after Valencia’s great start to the season was marred by a bumpy period of disappointing results. He has bounced back sharply and has turned Mestalla into a fortress, with Valencia boasting the best home record (12W 1D 1L) in the league, losing just one match in the entire season so far.
Nuno has shown a great tactical flexibility by shifting from his earlier 3-5-2 and reshaping into a 4-5-1/4-3-3 which has given the side greater attacking threat while retaining a solid defensive base.
Otamendi and Mustafi have forged a brick wall partnership at the back and in presence of the influential Javi Fuego ahead of them, the creative midfielders are given freedom to wreak havoc at the other end of the pitch. This is emphasised by Dani Parejo being the leading goalscorer of the side, with eight goals to his name.
They have beaten both the Madrid clubs and are on a seven games unbeaten run, winning six of those.
Furthermore, Nuno’s man management skills have been an eye-catching feature. Gaya has been phenomenal, proving himself to be one of the best left-backs in the league. Barragan has been solid on the other side, but probably an area where Valencia would be looking to add a quality player next season. Diego Alves is probably the best goalkeeper in La Liga right now, and has been an epitome of consistency for Los Che. All these players have improved immeasurably under Nuno’s guidance.
The best part of this side is they are not over reliant on any particular player. It is indeed remarkable that for a side with 60 points on the table (52 goals scored), none of their strikers have particularly shone this season, in terms of goal scoring, but both Negredo and Alcacer have played important roles in Valencia’s resurgence to the top.
These are early days for Lim’s ambitious project. If they learn from their past mistakes and continue to develop the way they have started, it won’t be much long before they re-establish as a powerhouse in Spain and in Europe once again.
(Many thanks to Andrew Gaffney & Sai for their inputs).