Valencia began the La Liga season with a stirring
comeback on Saturday, rallying from 3-1 down at home to Racing Santander to
secure a last-gasp 4-3 victory through a late brace by Roberto Soldado.
It put them top of the table at the close of the opening day, but by Sunday
night they had been relegated to second after Real Madrid put six unanswered
goals past Real Zaragoza. The hat-trick dominating the Spanish sports press on
Monday morning was the one scored by Cristiano Ronaldo, not Soldado's, and by
the end of the day Valencia will have been bumped even further down the
sporting agenda once Barcelona get their season under way against Villarreal.
It is a state of affairs to which Los Che
have long been accustomed. Valencia are the
third most successful club in the history of the Spanish top flight, but
the gap between them and the big two remains enormous. Unai Emery has worked
minor miracles to navigate the hugely indebted club to third place in the last
two seasons, but in 2009-10 they finished 25 points behind second-placed Real
and last season the gap was 21 points.
For a team that reached successive Champions League
finals at the turn of the millennium before winning two league titles and the
2004 UEFA Cup under Rafael Benitez, such a chasm must be difficult to stomach.
But these are different times at Valencia.
Since Manuel Llorente arrived as president in 2009 and took responsibility for
debts that were reportedly spiralling towards €550 million (£486m), Valencia's fans
have had to get used to bidding farewell to their star players. Having helped
the club qualify for the Champions League in 2009-10, David Villa and David
Silva were sold and the €70m (£61.9m) generated by their departures helped fund
the arrivals of players including Soldado, Alberto Costa, Mehmet Topal and
When those players secured Champions League qualification
again last season the cycle began anew, with new Chelsea recruit Juan Mata one
of 16 players to have left the club this summer.
As 12 months ago, replacements were brought in quickly
and, on the whole, cheaply: Brazilian goalkeeper Diego Alves and Argentine
starlet Pablo Piatti from Almeria, France centre-back Adil Rami from Lille and
Spain U21 central midfielder Dani Parejo from Getafe. Valencia have
rescued Sergio Canales from his Real Madrid stagnation on a season-long loan
and Emery has also delved into the academy, with 18-year-old winger Juan Bernat
making his league debut against Racing after signing a four-year contract with
a reported €20m (£17.7m) release clause.
Emery became Valencia's youngest ever coach when he
arrived from Almeria in 2008 at the age of 36 and the one-year contract
extension he agreed in May makes him the first coach to embark on a fourth
season at the Mestalla since Alfredo di Stefano in 1973. He remains a divisive
figure at the club, amid stories of player discontent over his man-management
and tactical inconsistency, but Llorente says the coach has proved his worth.
"We have a desire to improve and believe he has the ability to oversee it,"
said the president. "The challenge is to climb step by step, improve year
Improving on last year's league placing, however, appears
impossible. Valencia lost all four games against Barca and Real last season -
going down 6-3 at home to the latter in April - and the big two look even
stronger than they were a year ago. Valencia also face fresh competition from newly
rich Malaga, while Villarreal, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will
have designs on third place as well. Llorente and Emery may have brought a
sliver of optimism to a debt-laden club, and Emery may dream of "creating
a great team", but Valencia's biggest challenge this season will be simply
staying where they are.