Pitchside Europe

Bale saga overshadowing everything in Spain, but not for Valencia fans

Pitchside Europe

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Gareth Bale has dominated the headlines in Spain. The Spanish media didn’t have a clue that Tottenham were speaking to other clubs aside from Real Madrid. Bale wants to go to Madrid, but Tottenham’s priority is maximising their fee and strengthening their team. They were interested in a cash plus player deal for Bale from one club whom they approached, but Manchester United baulked at Tottenham’s initial demands. They kept talking...

It helped Spurs to have as many suitors as possible for Bale, not that many suitors can pay what they’re asking.

Meanwhile, the Madrid media salivated over Bale. They’d been writing that he’d come tomorrow for a week, except tomorrow never came. They claimed he was waiting by his agent’s swimming pool near Marbella before signing, but he flew back to England on Monday with no deal having been done.

Madrid still expect a deal to go through to make Bale the world’s most expensive player. They’ve had a presentation stage up and waiting for Bale at the Bernabeu since Friday, but since when has Tottenham Hotspur selling a player been straightforward? They want to maximise value. In contrast, Madrid wanted to talk the fee down. Hence the impasse.

All of this barely mattered to the 29,000 walking to Espanyol’s stadium on Saturday night. Not to the two groups of Espanyol ultras who sang loud and proud, creating an atmosphere that not only put bigger clubs to shame, but helped their ever changing first XI. Nor to the equally vocal opposing fans, there to cheer on Valencia, for whom selling off their assets rather than buying big has become a trademark.

Valencia are one of the bigger clubs. You know the script with Los Che. Third in the all-time Spanish league table, Champions League finalists in 2000 and 2001. League winners in 2002 and league and UEFA Cup winners in 2004.

And then came the meltdown. The debts, the publicly funded rescue, the new 75,000-capacity stadium which stands half-built on the edge of the city like the Coliseum of Rome, a metaphor as good as any for Spain’s economic woe.

But despite their troubles Valencia managed to keep finishing third. They came third in 2010, ’11 and ’12.

That wasn’t enough for fans fed on a better diet of success. Yet even back in the good old days those fans jeered Rafa Benitez, their most successful ever manager. And they certainly jeered ‘Mr Third’ Unai Emery, but it was a huge achievement, especially as they had to sell their best players to survive.

Villa, Silva, Mata, Soldado. They all went to England for big money, yet Valencia stayed strong. They were like a rubber ring. No matter how hard you pushed them down, they kept popping back up. They missed their best players, but kept bringing in suitable replacements and, because of sales, managed to keep their wage bill just above €100 million a year, the fourth highest in Spain.

If anything, they missed their coach Emery more. His failure to beat Barcelona and Madrid by at least five goals every time his side played them and lead them to Champions League and domestic success each season wasn’t good enough for the uber critics who paid his wages. He left in the summer of 2012, worn down by the sniping. As if he didn’t have enough to contend with simply keeping Valencia afloat.

Emery was replaced by former player Mauricio Pellegrino. His side were 17th after three games, 11th after 15 when he was sacked. Wily old hand Ernesto Valverde replaced him, charged with winning the league by at least 10 points. His side improved and rose to fourth by the penultimate game. A 4-3 defeat against Sevilla on the last day of the season saw them finish 5th and miss out on the Champions League for the first time since 2009.

Miroslav Djukic, Valladolid’s Serbian manager, replaced Valverde, who returned to the greener fields (at least at the training ground as their new home isn’t yet finished) of his former club Athletic Bilbao.

Djukic had led Valladolid to a solid 14th last season after leading them to promotion. He saw Soldado sold to Spurs, Tino Costa to Spartak Moscow and club legend David Albelda retire.

Valencia have made €27.2 million from the transfer market so far this summer, even after buying striker Dorlan Pabon from Mexico, striker Helda Postiga from Zaragoza (where they’d bought Villa). Postiga’s decent – he managed 14 league goals in a woeful Zaragoza side last year – but he’s nowhere near the level of Soldado or Villa.

Valencia bought Javi Fuego from Rayo, Michel from Levante and loaned Oriol Romeu from Chelsea. All potentially decent.

These may turn out to be shrewd signings and we’re still only in August, but Valencia have been poor so far this season. They beat a much weakened Malaga 1-0 in a dire opening game. And they lost at Espanyol on Saturday.

Maybe the once prodigious Sergio Canales, still only 23 and now free of serious injury, will fulfil his potential. Maybe Ever Banega will stay out of discos as his dancing partner Miguel has retired and Costa has gone east. They still have quality: defenders Rami and Mathieu, wingers Feghouli and Guardado (when he’s in the mood), but Valencia didn’t show it against Espanyol.

Their fans did. Two hundred of their ultras stood bare-chested behind a Spanish flag with the words ‘On Tour’ written in English. They sang, they celebrated their opening goal, but their team were so poor that boss Djukic said: ‘I can’t see any stars here.’ He’s right. He also said that his team had made fools of themselves, that he was ashamed. He’s already questioned his players’ attitude, which didn’t go down well with players.

His team need to adjust to his style. They’ve been direct under their three previous bosses, while Djukic prefers a more Spanish style of possession.

Valencia’s rivals for the Champions League are Atletico, Sevilla and maybe Real Sociedad. Many more days like Saturday and they’ll be aiming their sights a little lower.

But it won't get any easier for Valencia this weekend. They play Barcelona at home.

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