So you want entertainment ? Look no further than Betis, Real Sociedad and Valencia. Betis and Real’s nine and eight games respectively have so far produced a whacking 72 goals, each side involved in 36, in their own net or in that of their opponent. Valencia are close behind on 35 but remain undefeated, so we’d better give them the crown. Valencia – wot? You mean they’re actually doing well again? They are indeed, and the interesting thing is that nobody saw it coming.
So long had they been in the crisis-doldrums, that most punters had given up on them, including their own over-demanding and grumpy fans. Well – they’re not grumpy now. On Saturday at full-time the old Mestalla resembled an ecstatic bible-bashing event, everything building up to a climax of happy-clappy joy and bliss, culminating in an orgy of full-throat singing and major head-shaking . Lordy Lordy, the fans have seen the light, and his name is Guedes!
On five consecutive wins now, this is Valencia’s best start since 1947, and to further feel the force, at this time last season they were already on the third manager of the campaign, Pako Ayestaran having departed, Voro doing his usual caretaker act, and then poor Prandelli taking over. With the latter coach named like a Pret a Manger sandwich, you knew it was going to end in tears, and it did. Something suggests that this season will be a little distinct. Under the new management of Marcelino, a chap who was in danger of becoming one of those half-decent Spanish managers, a bit too keen on moving house when the wind rattled the shutters, never quite proving himself even in the medium-term until he took over at Villarreal in the winter of 2013. He guided them back to the top flight and seamlessly returned their play to its former glory days but was surprisingly sacked in the summer of 2016, taking a sabbatical until Valencia picked him up in May of this year.
How has he done it? Well, not through massive changes of personnel. Valencia must still watch the pennies, with the re-financing of the semi-constructed new stadium partially resolved, but success on the field wouldn’t exactly discourage new investors or bank loans.
Apart from the obviously astute loan signing of the 20 year-old Gonçalo Guedes from Benfica (he played 8 games for PSG last season, and someone at Valencia noticed), and the permanent signing of Simone Zaza, who sounds like a rakish cabaret act, the rest are as you were. But that’s the point – it doesn’t take a whole new cadre of players to turn a club around, especially when it was obvious last season that the quality was there. ‘Twas just a matter of exploiting it within the right mix.
Guedes’ opening goal against Sevilla – a side who seem to be heading in the opposite direction despite an intelligent new coach – is my favourite so far this season. To use Roy-of-the-Rovers speak, what a corker! The goal has all the characteristics of Valencia’s new style, the budding of which I saw for myself in Anoeta earlier this season. Defence is turned into attack at a giddy pace, with a one-touch counter-attacking approach that works wonders by sucking the opponents into pushing up their line too high, usually in possession. For the opener, the lay-off to Guedes is sensational (is it by Parejo?) but once the young Portuguese attacker gets the ball he absolutely hares off into the space, pursued by three red-shirted defenders. To their credit, sensing that Guedes is faster, they all peel off to the right of him and use the angle to try to cut off his route but Guedes surprises them by turning sharply into their path, throwing two of them off balance and then whacking a shot into the top left-hand corner of the net which renders keeper Sergio Rico a static irrelevance. The place explodes, and Guedes slides along the turf with his right hand cupped in a mock salute, like a rooky soldier on amphetamines.
He got the 4th too, and it’s hardly a poor goal, chipped over the advancing Rico with arrogant aplomb by the youngster. He’s now the latest thing, with Asensio having cooled off a little, despite his lovely strike against Eibar on Sunday night. It remains to be seen whether Guedes can maintain this start, young as he is, but he’s not the only gun in the revolution. Zaza is terrific – so much so that it seems odd that Juve let him go for 16 million, a Sunday market price nowadays. He looked half-decent last season, but with the team less confident he wasn’t quite as effective. Now he seems to score with every chance, and his movement is crafty and difficult to track. That’s eight this season and counting, only three behind Messi.
Whatever you think about these guys up front, neither is the midfield so different (Soler and Parejo were there last season) and back up the new quick-mix theory, where you retain the basis and add a new element. Geoff Kondogbia is well-known to the Spanish public, and first caught the eye in 2013 when playing, ironically, for Sevilla. Barça were after him, but he ended up at Monaco, then Inter and now Valencia, although he’s still on loan. He’s the perfect complement for the quick-thinking creative department of Parejo and Soler, but he’s no slouch with his feet. His ability to cover ground and snuff out opponents has suddenly galvanised a three-man engine-room that has speedy goal-scorers above it, and aggressive defenders below. Rodrigo is also a useful young man, having proved his worth recently at international level, and Santi Mina is hardly a poor prospect. All of a sudden, you feel that if the winning factor can continue and the smiles be retained, then Atlético Madrid may not be the great pretender this season after all. Valencia are still the third best-supported side in Spain, and dangerous when their tail is up and the Mestalla returns to its traditional opponent-baiting scary self.
They’ve no particularly tricky games until late November, when Barça visit the Mestalla. That could be very interesting, if the hosts have won their three games before that fixture. There’s a fire in the east, and it sure is crackling again!