For Valencia, A Sorry Show Of What Could Have Been


Valencia must have greeted this weekend’s guests to Mestalla with a frustrated sigh of ‘that could have been us.’ Atletico Madrid visited the sunny south-east and came away with three points that put them top of the table for the first time since January thanks to goals from the French pairing of Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro.

Sunday’s encounter showed us clearly how starkly contrasting both sides’ last five years have been.

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As recently as 2011/12, Valencia were somewhat secure in their position as Spain’s third best team. Led by now PSG boss Unai Emery, Los Che finished 3rd three seasons running, with Atleti just another team struggling to consistently qualify for the European spots along with Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, and Villarreal in La Liga’s “second tier.”

Just two years on from Valencia being top dogs of the “second tier,” Atletico were top dogs of the first, realising the astonishing achievements that Los Che so dearly wanted – breaking the Barca-Madrid duopoly and stunning the world by winning La Liga.

The home side weren’t without their chances. On Sunday, Diego Alves did what he does best and saved not one, but two penalties, keeping his team in the game. Five years ago, they had the chance to solidify their stance as Champions League regulars, but instead blew it with impatience and board-level turbulence.

Unai Emery’s fantastic achievement of managing Valencia to 3rd place between 2009/10, 2010/11, and 2011/12 was just not deemed good enough for the fans who wanted to compete with the 100-point chasing Barcelona and Real Madrid. Valencia fans are known for being a difficult bunch to please, and some of the quickest fans in Spain at releasing the infamous white handkerchiefs of disgust that somehow now seem as common as the white jersey at Mestalla.

Valencia earned 71, 71, and 61 points in those 3rd place seasons, falling a significant way behind the title-chasers but during a period when Barca and Madrid pushed each other to almost unbelievable record-setting new heights. Both teams, and perhaps Spanish football as a whole, were playing to peak levels and dominating football both domestically and in Europe. Emery surely cannot be blamed for being unable to shake that duopoly up.

However, the feeling on the coast was that Valencia had become stagnant, showing no signs of progression in an environment where the team should have been flourishing. In his final season at Mestalla, Emery’s Valencia did finish with 10 points fewer than the previous campaigns. So he left, eventually for Sevilla and three consecutive Europa Leagues, and Valencia chose Mauricio Pellegrino to be the man to take the project forward.

He was sacked by December, and impatience with managers has come to define Valencia’s last five years. Cesare Prandelli has just been named as their 10th manager since Emery’s departure.

They had another chance to reestablish themselves among Europe’s elite in 2015, after Nuno Espiritu Santo guided them back into the Champions League. In Nuno’s first and only full season at the club Mestalla was restored as a fortress, with Barcelona the only visiting team to claim victory there all season (thanks to a 94th minute goal).

That season’s heroics came largely thanks to the brilliant defensive partnership of Shkodran Mustafi and Nicolas Otamendi. But like so many other brilliant players before him, Otamendi left the club the following summer, leaving a noticeable gap behind him. That gap would ultimately play a huge in role costing Nuno his job, like so many other managers before him.

Meanwhile in the away dugout on Sunday, it was Diego Simeone who was celebrating – the man who has come to define Atletico Madrid.

Since Cholo took over the helm at the Calderón, Atleti have gone from strength to strength, and have proven themselves as the example to all other clubs looking to break into world football’s elite. Before Simeone, los Colchoneros struggled to qualify for Europe on a regular basis, and languished in 10th place when the Argentine was appointed. In his first half season, he brought them from mediocrity to two points away from the Champions League.

Simeone has given the team stability, something Valencia severely lack. His influence has been clear over the last half decade and on Sunday it was on show again, bringing on Yannick Carrasco and Fernando Torres early in the second half for both of them to play important roles in the opening goal of the game within minutes/seconds of their introductions.

With success built on the back of a water-tight defence and prolific warriors leading the line of attack down the years, Atleti are now established as one of Europe’s top teams. They’ve broken Spain’s duopoly, and replaced it with an exhilarating three horse race.

Atletico won the league in 2013/14 with Diego Costa up front doing the job of two men. He battled for every aerial ball sent his direction, and finished the moves off that started with him laying off those passes to the awaiting wide men. This year, the Madrid outfit may perhaps be best suited to win the title again since that famous season, with Kevin Gameiro emerging as one of the most important players in los Colchoneros’ arsenal.

The speedy striker has featured in all of Atleti’s league games this season, with Griezmann occupying a slightly more withdrawn role in the spaces between opposition lines of defence and midfield. With Griezmann’s abilities to attack open space and unlock defences with his phenomenal passing range, having a partner like Gameiro to distract other defenders and race for balls played into empty channels is the perfect way to get the best out of him. Griezmann is currently La Liga’s top goalscorer with 6 goals in only 7 games.

The fortunes of Valencia and Atletico Madrid in the last five years could barely have been any more opposing. Atleti are in the position to keep that trend up on their end of the bargain, while Valencia’s problems seem bigger that what just a manager can fix.

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