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Can Valencia challenge the established hegemony in Spanish football?
- Updated: 25 July, 2012
Despite losing their grip on the Spanish league title to Real Madrid last season, Barcelona have been the dominant team in world football over the past five years.
By the close of the decade Pep Guardiol’s men had amassed an unprecedented haul of trophies, including two Champions League titles and four La Liga crowns -changing the way football was played in the process. However, at the start of that decade the spotlight fell on another team from Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
Valencia had staked its claim as one of La Liga’s best sides after a run that saw two league titles and two Champions League Final appearances in succession – albeit both resulting in defeat.
In fact, it was only nine years ago that La Liga was more than a two-horse race. Valencia had had one of the strongest squads in Europe with Santiago Canizares, Pablo Aimar, Gaizka Mendieta, and Mauricio Pellegrino some of their most recognisable names. Their coach Rafael Benitez was also quickly emerging to European recognition and he led Los Che to league conquest in the 2001-02 and 2003-04 campaigns.
After Benitez left for Liverpool however, Valencia experienced something of a coaching merry-go-round as Claudio Ranieri, Quique Flores, Ronald Koeman and the simply-named Voro all came and went. Unai Emery proved the most constant coach of recent times as the Basque tactician spent four seasons at the Mestala until his departure at the end of last season.
After guiding the team to a modest sixth-placed finish in his first year at the club, Emery then secured three consecutive third-placed finishes – despite undergoing some severe financial difficulties. The crippling debt left little choice but to sell the side’s best players in order to offset their losses and David Silva, David Villa, and Juan Mata all departed in a period of two years. On the face of it, Emery had done a fantastic job as coach, making the most out of his quickly-diminishing resources.
However, by the end of the 2011-12 season, fans had grown weary of the former Almeria boss. Despite consolidating their status as the third-best team in Spain, there was still a huge gulf in class between Valencia and the top two teams – Barcelona and Real Madrid.
After Emery unceremoniously left the club to eventually signed with Spartak Moscow, Los Che hired their former defender Mauricio Pellegrino to head a new era of simultaneous rebuilding and competing at the Mestalla.
The 40-year old Argentine undoubtedly has a difficult job on his hands as Valencia look to regain past glories, however, it is also clear he inherits a talented and capable squad of player.
Despite a slightly low-key end to the campaign, Roberto Soldado was the best Spanish striker in La Liga last season and he is ably supported in other areas of the pitch.
New summer signings Andres Guardado from Deportivo and Joao Pereira from Sporting will give the club new blood on the flanks, and the midfield has great depth – the likes of Pablo Hernandez, Pablo Piatti, Tino Costa, Ever Banega and captain David Albelda are arguably one of the best in the league.
The permanent signing of the talented Sergio Canales and the arrival of Fernando Gago, both from Real Madrid, could also prove fantastic signings by the board.
The defence is solid, with the partnership of Victor Ruiz and French international Adil Rami proving imperious last term. The loss of prized left-back Jordi Alba to Barcelona will be a blow of course, however, in Jeremy Mathieu the club have a ready-made replacement.
Valencia also have some highly-rated youngsters at the club, with two of the brightest being Francisco “Paco” Alcacer and Juan Bernat. Alcacer made three appearances for the senior team in the second half of the 2011-12 season and was top scorer at the Uefa Under 19 Championship in Romania last summer.
Bernat meanwhile, is a technically gifted left winger who has made seven appearances for Valencia. Both players were part of Julen Lopetegui’s Spanish squad that won a record sixth Uefa Under-19 Championship this month in Estonia.
While Pellegrino obviously has a talented squad to work with, it is clear he will be under pressure to close the gap between the duopoly at the top and the chasing pack. This will be no easy task. Both Barca and Real Madrid will have strengthen again ahead of the new campaign, a daunting prospect for the rest of La Liga when you consider the 30 point gap that already existed at the end of the last campaign.
However, with president Manual Llorente insisting the new stadium be ready for the 2014-15 season, and the club’s financial woes finally looking to have been addressed, the future looks promising for Valencia and their fans. Whether they can provide a realistic challenge to the current hegemony at the top of La Liga is unclear, however, they have certainly proved capable of that in the past.Follow @icentrocampista