El Centrocampista

A COLD AND WET TRIP TO STOKE? All in a night’s work for Unai Emery and Valencia

Photograph: J.M.L

Unai Emery cut a fairly relaxed and satisfied figure as he sat in the press lounge of the Britannia Stadium last night. Answering a plethora of questions from the assembled Spanish media who had made the trip to Staffordshire for the Europa League tie against Stoke City, Emery seemed pretty content with the way the game had gone.

And why not? His side had just given a convincing display to the fact that Spanish teams can actually cope very well on a ‘cold and wet midweek trip to Stoke’ – that somewhat tedious cliche normally wheeled-out by critics of all things non-Premier League.

Ok, Emery’s side may have only won by a single goal and should really have finished the two-legged tie off as a contest before the sides resume at the Mestalla next week, but the coach and his team had done everything else right during a night of frustration and anti-climax for the home side.

Billed as one of the English club’s biggest night’s in their history, most people expected Stoke to give their visitors a rough and tumble introduction to how it’s done in ‘the greatest league in the world’, and in turn maybe show the rest of Europe that English sides still hold the upper-hand when it comes to the crunch.

And to be fair to Stoke City, they did come out with all guns blazing – unfortunately it didn’t last.

By the time Mehmet Topal fired in a thunderous 30-yard effort in the 34th minute, the home side were distinctly second best. What is more, they were actually getting out-fought by their Spanish opponents, definitely not what was expected before the game began.

Credit then to Unai Emery for fielding a side that withstood a brief ten minute onslaught before they slipped into gear to take control of the game – the Valencia coach got his team selection spot on in fact.

Pablo Piatti, so often criticised for the inconsistency shown since arriving from Alemria in the summer, was a case in point. The young Argentine was a constant threat and pretty much ran the show for large periods of the encounter – showing some lovely movement around the Stoke penalty area that, with a slightly better end product, could have finished the game off by half-time.

It took los che a while to find their full rhythm it has to be said, they gave the ball away far too cheaply during the opening exchanges, but when they did, they looked in complete control.

Both Topal and Tino Costa where fantastic in midfield, leaving Rory Delap and Wilson Palacios looking very uncomfortable at times, and Jonas again showed why he has been won of Valencia’s stand-out men this season. When you consider the 27-year-old Brazilian only cost the club a reported €1.25 million last January, it is fair to say Jonas has become one of the shrewdest signings of recent seasons.

The former-Gremio player was a continued menace in and around the box and combined well with Sofiane Feghouli and Piatti, who both provided able support from out wide.

Feghouli is another player that has really established himself in Emery’s side this season, finally showing the sort of form that led Valencia to whisk him away from French side Grenoble two years ago.

The 22-year-old has matured into an assured performer and offers Valencia a dangerous threat down the right side of their team – impressing enough to keep Spanish international and club stalwart, Pablo Hernandez on the sidelines. He was also unlucky not to get on the scoreline last night when he slightly scuffed an effort onto Begovic’s post.

The home side did pick their game up for a spell in the second half, but Valencia were more than a match for them – in fact the visitors actually won the physical battle when the game was dragged into the trenches, much to the distain of the 24,185 people sat in the stadium (barring around 60 hardy souls who had made the trip from Valencia). The irony of seeing fans of probably the most-physical side in the Premier League barracking the officials wasn’t lost on many, I am sure.

It is probably the manner in which Emery’s side performed when the game got developed into a battle, that will have most surprised those who doubted their ability to cope during a physical encounter. The visitors were far more robust than even their opponents had given them credit for, which eventually led to frustration spreading first through Stoke’s players on the pitch, and then into the stands.

Adil Rami and Angel Dealbert coped magnificently with the aerial prescence of Peter Crouch and the physicality of Jonathan Walters, who was probably Stoke’s best player on the night, Crouch in particular was highly disappointing in a game that was built-up to be tailor-made for the England international.

Emery also chose to give Aritz Aduriz the nod up front ahead of star man Roberto Soldado, a decision that surprised some English colleagues in the press box but one which was understandable in the scheme of things. Aduriz, as always, worked his socks off and while not being particularly apparent, the work he did throughout the game allowed players around him to find space and, crucially, kept the Stoke defence occupied almost throughout.

The flip side of the this of course, is that Valencia travel to the Camp Nou on Sunday to face Barcelona and now have a refreshed Soldado ready to start against the Catalans (not withstanding his 12 minute cameo at the end of the game.)

A win on Sunday will see the gap to Barça cut to just five points, however even a point at the Camp Nou has proved unachievable for any side thus far.

The fact that Valencia ultimately enjoyed a fairly comprehensive victory (as 1-0’s go)  last night, is resounding justification to Unai Emery’s decision to leave players such as Soldado and Ever Banega out of his side, also giving him a slight selection headache for the trip to the reigning league champions at the weekend.

However it is a position the coach will no doubt be as comfortable with as he was answering the post-match questions last night. It was mission accomplished for Valencia and it was also probably a slight eye-opener for the English media and fans who witnessed the way the La Liga side acquitted themselves. But should it really be a surprise? After all, Valencia have been the third-best side consistanly in Spain for three or four years now and are also seasoned European campaigners.

Meanwhile Stoke performed miracles to progress through the group stage of the Europa League and, with wanting to sound patronising, can be immensely proud of the displays thus far in the competition. Last night however, they were not only outclassed by superior opposition but also, and impressively for the visitors, out-fought when it really mattered.

The tie isn’t over yet of course, with only a one goal advantage, anything could happen in the Mestalla return, but I don’t think there will be many putting money down on a Stoke comeback.

All in all, it was a very-assured and confident display from Valencia and the jovial mood of their coach was enough proof that he was pleased with the night’s work his side had put in.

Ever the pragmatist, Emery ended his press conference by praising the home side and said he was “delighted to come to a place like Stoke City and get a hard-fought win”. With that he was up out of his seat and off through the double-doors ready to prepare for the trip to Barcelona in three days time.

And that mid-week trip to a wet and windy Stoke? I don’t know what all that fuss was about.


  1. Pete

    17 February, 2012 at 18:49

    There was a lot to admire about Valencia but there was also a lot to detest.

    Stoke are unfairly criticised for playing hard whereas Valencia last night were just plain dirty. Dangerous tackles, scraping foreheads down the faces of the Stoke players and getting in the face of an inept ref.

    “It was a studs-up challenge and he could have broken my leg,” said midfielder Whitehead, who was a second-half substitute. “If I hadn’t had my shin pads on, it would have done.”

    • Iain McMullen

      17 February, 2012 at 19:39

      Tino Costa was a lucky boy as his challenge on Whitehead could have left the Stoke player nursing more than ‘just’ a nasty cut on his shin.

      I agree that Stoke do get a lot of negative press from some sections of the media, some of it unwarranted at times, but they aren’t shy to ‘mix it up’ when they have to either – this isn’t a criticism however – football is a results business and despite us all wanting to play like Barcelona, sometimes you have to play to your strengths.

      Stoke didn’t do that enough last night, bar the opening ten minutes – if they had grabbed a goal when they were on top then the game could well have ended differently.

      Emery got his tactics spot-on however and they really knocked Stoke off their game plan – apart from the acrobatic effort and a header, where he was climbing all over the back of a defender, Peter Crouch was almost non-existent which made life far too easy for Valencia.

      Crouch could have really caused problems if he had been on top of his game with some decent support.

      Disappointing from a Stoke point of view but they have performed heroics in the Europa League this season, so who knows….

  2. amuntche

    17 February, 2012 at 19:13

    I did not see that much wrong with the tackle on the Stoke player – it is the British players who are normally the ones who say they are not allowed to tackle in football.
    Stoke themselves put a number of bad tackles in during the first half and cannot complain. The only way Stoke would have ever beaten Valencia would have been by roughing them up, something that they are very good at doing from the games I have seen them play in England.

    They did not do this and Valencia used all their experience to frustrate them

  3. Pete

    17 February, 2012 at 20:03

    We gave you too much respect.

    In truth we haven’t been on form for a long time and going in at 1/2 time 1-0 down is close to ideal for the fans as it means Pulis has nothing to defend and has to go for it.

    The strong arm tactics of Valencia will get the players up for the game as well as the 6,000 (unofficial count) Stokies that are travelling to the Mestalla.

    I’m looking forward to it – see you there 🙂

  4. N40

    17 February, 2012 at 22:40

    Valencia were a disgrace at the end of the game – Costa should have been sent off and instead the ref booked Whitehead!

    I think we’re still in it – as Pete said, the team will be fired up now and we will make a hell of a racket!

  5. carlojag

    18 February, 2012 at 10:43

    What impressed me was the way Valencia played. They won 4-0 against Sporting last weekend but they weren’t that dominant in all honesty. It was also the first league win of 2012 I think? So they haven’t been in great form recently which could have led to a shock result if they hadn’t performed against Stoke.

  6. alex

    18 February, 2012 at 13:31

    another propaganda coined by the english media is truly busted. valencia didn’t even field its full-strength side and easily managed the so-called physical challenges of stoke. what i found very funny is that a lot of whining and complaints came from the english side. Those tackles dished out by the valencia players are nothing compared to the ones dished out by atletico bilbao.

    maybe we should introduce a new phrase, “a cold and wet trip to san mames”?

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