NOVEMBER 28 ― The opening weeks of the Spanish football season have delivered an unexpected new arrival into the La Liga title race.
Valencia came into the new campaign after struggling badly in the last couple of years, looking more like relegation candidates than trophy contenders as a series of floundering and ill-fitting coaches tried but failed to make the most out of a talented but oversized squad.
That all changed in the summer, when yet another new manager arrived in the form of Marcelino, who had previously enjoyed a great deal of success with Valencia’s near-neighbours on the eastern Spanish coast, Villarreal.
Marcelino is a noted disciplinarian who demands high standards and ruthless professionalism from everyone around him, and he immediately set about shedding a number of superfluous players and replacing them with a small number of new signings who are physically capable of playing his high-speed, intense, defensively disciplined counter-attacking football.
The results have been extremely impressive, with Marcelino’s newly reshaped team making an unbeaten start to the season and marrying their defensive diligence with an ability to score freely, hitting the net at a rate of nearly three goals per game.
A run of eight consecutive wins even took Valencia to second place in the table, four points off top spot, and Sunday’s home meeting with leaders Barcelona was therefore understandably billed as a showdown between title contenders and a chance to show that Valencia have got what it takes to last the course.
I would love to be wrong, because another addition to the title race would be a great addition to La Liga, but as far as I could tell they failed the audition.
Although the final scoreline of 1-1 looks reasonable enough, it was a result which flattered Valencia ― in no small part because Barca were wrongly denied a goal when the officials inexplicably failed to notice that a shot from Lionel Messi had crossed the line by nearly a foot.
Barca were hugely superior to Valencia all over the pitch, especially in the first half, and at times the gulf between the teams was so great it would have been ludicrous to suggest they are battling for the same prize.
Valencia’s marked improvement in the second half was an encouraging sign that they are capable of competing with the best, but ultimately they were the happier of the two teams to settle for a draw with several of their players desperately struggling to make a positive impact.
Of course, Valencia have some admirable qualities, and considering their sudden rise to the top it is natural to compare them with the last team to succeed in breaking the Real Madrid/Barcelona duopoly in La Liga: Atletico Madrid, who celebrated an unexpected title triumph in 2014.
And there are certain similarities in the style of play of the two teams, who both rely upon hard work, organisation, a collective mentality and the ability to launch devastating counter-attacks.
But there is also a key difference: Valencia are a new team, whereas Atletico had been building towards their success for quite a while.
In 2012, a few months after Diego Simeone had been appointed manager, Atletico won the Europa League. The following season they took the Uefa Super Cup with a demolition of Chelsea, kept pace at the top of the league table until the final few weeks and added the Spanish Cup with victory in the final over local rivals Real Madrid.
It was only the following season, 2013/14, that Atletico were finally ready to carry through the sustained success they had been building towards for more than two years, during which time they had properly worked out how to maximise their strengths and hide their weaknesses. Quite simply, over a prolonged period of time, they had learned how to win.
For Valencia, the period of gestation has been two months rather than two years, and it’s hard to see how Marcelino’s men will be able to withstand the injuries, suspensions and losses of individual form which will inevitably affect their season and still keep on winning.
There are, very occasionally, exceptions to the rule that teams ― especially when they have been assembled on a relatively low budget ― need time to find their feet before they can enjoy sustained success.
The most obvious example is Leicester City, who were nearly relegated one season before winning the Premier League the next, with no transitional period in between.
But Leicester didn’t have to deal with the relentless consistency of Barcelona or Real Madrid, who will not lose the number of points dropped by the EPL’s big guns during the Foxes’ incredible march to glory a couple of years ago.
The high standards required to win La Liga are probably without peer in any other competition. Even Valencia’s superb start to the season has left them four points behind Barcelona, so even a repeat of their form so far will leave them short unless the leaders slip up.
This time next year, if Valencia can maintain their current core and add a few more quality performers who suit the team both in terms of style and personality, maybe we can start regarding them as serious challengers. But for now, I can only see them fading away.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.