Through the first six rounds in La Liga, Valencia CF led the way at the top of the ladder with sixteen points, one point ahead of Villarreal, two points ahead of Real Madrid, and three points ahead of FC Barcelona. Along with Real Madrid, Valencia remained only one of two teams still undefeated in the league, and the early murmurs among the Spanish press signaled that Barcelona and Real Madrid would not run away from the others as they did last season.
Valencia’s surprising start has less with whom they lost in the summer and rather with what they gained in those absences. The club earned a total of €84.2 million in transfer fees, with headliners David Villa garnering €40 million and David Silva €30 million. €22.7 million of the €84.2 million went into buying players to replace those sold, including a new strike force in Aritz Aduriz and Roberto Soldado and reinforcements in the midfield Mehmet Topal and Tino Costa. The rest of the money went toward scaling down the massive debt that the club continually increased over the past decade.
How did Valencia maneuver itself to owing €550 million to various creditors?
Click here to see a significant chunk of that debt. Without securing the sale of the current Mestalla, then-President Juan Bautista Soler gave approval to the construction of the Nou Mestalla, a 75,000 seat, state-of-the-art stadium that would compete with the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabéu for revenues and the hosting of European finals. Building of the stadium halted in February 2009 when the funds went dry, and the Nou Mestalla currently sits as the white elephant in Valencia as a symbol of financial irresponsibility.
As with most of the high-profile European clubs, player and manager wages accounted for a substantial part of the budget. As late as the 2008-09 season, Valencia’s player wages outweighed their total revenue earned throughout that campaign.
The ghost of Ronald Koeman still haunts the Mestalla, even though he was sacked in April of 2008 after a disastrous campaign that saw the two-time champions mired in a relegation battle when Valencia made the change. Even though his previous stints as manager with Ajax, Benfica, and PSV Eindhoven brought little compared to expectations, Valencia felt Koeman would fare better than Quique Sánchez Flores, who was a mere four points off the top spot when Flores received his pink slip in October 2008. As part of the deal to bring in Koeman from PSV, one of the clauses stated that if Valencia qualified for the UEFA Champions League in the three seasons following Koeman’s move, Valencia would pay PSV €1 million.
Despite earning a Champions League berth by finishing third last season long after Valencia fired Koeman, the clause still applied, so the total expenditure on the transfer, appointment, and discharge of the former Barcelona great stood at €2.8 million.
(On a side note, AZ Alkmaar did not learn from prior history because they took a chance on Koeman after Louis van Gaal left following their first Eredivisie crown since 1981 to become the manager of Bayern Munich. Koeman was gone in December after floundering in mid-table.)
All these financial transgressions transpired throughout the course of the past few years, and yet they had a chance to legitimize their credentials as a top-table team on Saturday against an FC Barcelona that has looked less than their absolute best in La Liga.
Valencia’s early season schedule has not been the most strenuous, and against Atlético Madrid, their toughest opponent in their first six matches, they squeaked out a 1-1 draw late, even though Valencia virtually controlled the entire match.
Against Manchester United in the Champions League, Sir Alex Ferguson looked happy to settle for a 0-0 draw at the Mestalla and sat back while Valencia kept a large majority of the possession. Valencia could not capitalize on the chances they created, and the one decent opportunity that Manchester United had, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández buried the ball into the back of the net in the final quarter of the match to hand the Red Devils the three points and temporary control of the group.
If Valencia were to further Barça’s shocking woes at the Camp Nou, Los Che would need the courage to press Barcelona, close the margin of possession that Barcelona typically has against their opponents, and convert on their scoring opportunities. In the first half, Valencia accomplished the first two objectives, but while they did score a goal to lead at halftime, they missed a promising opening at the end of the half to double their advantage and further plant seeds of doubt and panic into a Barcelona team that has hardly had to deal with such emotions since Pep Guardiola took over the club in the summer of 2008.
The opening forty-five minutes played out as though both team switched uniforms because Valencia scoured the pitch with a penchant for suffocating defensive pressure, an ability to recover possession quickly once it was lost, and an assuredness with the ball when they had possession, whereas Barcelona almost planned to sit back in their own half of the pitch and break on the counter-attack. A strange combination of nervous murmuring and breathless hush enveloped the Culés in the Camp Nou, as Valencia seemed to have all the answers.
After Pablo Hernández opened the scoring in the 38th minute, they fashioned an even better opportunity to add a second three minutes later. Éver Banega, the influential playmaker who made his first appearance in a month because of an ankle injury, fought down the right wing with two Barça players to slide the ball to Roberto Soldado at the right edge of the penalty area. Soldado slid it across to Pablo in the middle of the penalty area, and with the whole left side of the goal open, Pablo tried to fool Víctor Valdés and go behind him to the right near post, but Valdés was up to the task and parried it out for a corner kick.
From that moment forward, Barcelona took over the match with a gusto and innovative flair that had been absent in the early days of this season. Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández’s one-two that mesmerized four Valencia players accounted for the equalizer two minutes into the second half.
David Villa, wanting to shine badly against his former team although he played that down during the week, provided a pinpoint squared ball across the six-yard box that would have been a tap-in for Iniesta on the left back post if Jordi Alba had not somehow cleared it over his own crossbar from three yards out. Another Iniesta through ball scythed the Valencia back line and sent Villa free for a one-on-one with César Sánchez, which César won by taking the ball away from Villa’s foot as Villa made his final move to try to get around César in the penalty area.
Carles Puyol, of all people, scored what turned out to be the game-winner after Xavi sent in another accurate cross from the right wing, and Valencia never really looked as though they could re-gather themselves enough to mount a serious challenge at squaring the match.
2-1 fulltime, and Barcelona found the invigoration and elixir that should propel them to boost their season.
Should this loss discourage Valencia? Absolutely not. Barcelona outplayed them in the second half and deserved to win the match, and when the superior team plays at its best, all Valencia can do is shake their hands and say, “Good match.” Despite the talent they had to sell before this campaign, Valencia is a solid bet to finish in the top four. Their title credentials, however, took a big hit with this loss to Barcelona on Saturday.
One match out of thirty-eight this might have been, and teams have won championships when they have not fared well against the established top two or three teams, but in their three most stringent tests in all competitions, Los Che have come out with one point out of nine. As Valencia president Manuel Llorente stated:
“Now we are going to Barcelona at a good time, with a high rank and a different team from previous years. We have a squad with a high capacity to work and it gives us enormous options.”
With Valencia at the top of the table and Barcelona under par in comparison to their normal high standards, Valencia played Barcelona at the perfect time, and through forty-four minutes, the confidence from within the organization was justified. Championship contenders, however, put away teams when they have a foot on the throat, and Valencia enabled Barcelona to slither away from that foot and counter that threat with an attack of their own. Valencia could not respond to Barcelona’s challenge.
Manuel Llorente announced that Valencia cut their overflowing debt from €550 million to €400 million, and manager Unai Emery and he are leading this historic team in the right direction. In a couple of years, with more of this fiscal responsibility and outstanding play on the pitch, Valencia will contend for titles as they did in the first half of the 2000s decade, but for now, their goals should center on maintaining a top four finish and steady progression in the Champions League.
Fueras de Juego
– Cristiano Ronaldo scored two and assisted in two goals as Real Madrid rolled over a potentially dangerous Málaga side 1-4. José Mourinho is known for building up players to stratospheric heights. At Chelsea, he declared Frank Lampard the best player in the world. At Inter Milan, Mourinho trumpeted that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the most indispensable striker in world football. At Real Madrid, Mourinho has done the same for Ronaldo, saying that it was clear to him that he is number one in the world with Lionel Messi number two. The confidence shown by Mourinho to Ronaldo, even when Ronaldo found it hard to score in the opening matches of the season, now has come to fruition in the last few games, and expect more destruction from Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid as they look poised to dethrone Barcelona in La Liga.
– Espanyol defeated Mallorca 0-1 at the Iberostar Stadium despite the ejection of Pablo Osvaldo late in the first half to rise to sixth in the table. The “other” team from Barcelona might be the most anonymous team in Spain, and in the eye of no one’s radar, their six goals scored in seven matches with an overall goal difference of -3 has los periquitos as the surprise team so far this season.
– In each of the ten stadia that held La Liga matches this weekend, they had a minute of silence prior to their matches in honor of Atlético Madrid legend Juan Carlos Arteche, who died from cancer on Wednesday night. The Atlético hard man in central defense terrorized strikers in the 1980s with his physical style and “questionable” tackling, but he might best be known as a man that took a serious disliking to former Atleti president Jesús Gil, so much so that he retired at a relatively young age of 32 due to his conflicts with Gil. Any man who stood up to the controversial, authoritarian, and misanthropic Gil was a brave man, and courage was never lacking with Arteche. Rest in peace, Juan Carlos Arteche.