Having been the first Spanish team this century to offer serious resistance to the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona, winning La Liga twice and reaching back-to-back Champions League finals, Valencia’s decline has been gradual but palpable.
The last time they finished third in La Liga was 2012, and they haven’t reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League since 2007. Consecutive 12th-placed finishes in their last two seasons were their worst league results since 1988, and only once in the last five seasons have they earned a top-four spot and qualification for the Champions League.
However, having been through a prolonged period of turbulence that saw them employ nine managers in five seasons, in Marcelino García Toral they seem to have found the man who can steady the ship and steer the club in the right direction. Going into the last weekend in February, Los Che were fourth in La Liga, with a healthy seven-point lead over Sevilla.
As the season reaches its climax, Valencia will be one of several teams in La Liga fighting for a place in the Champions League. As with the battle to avoid relegation, the struggle to qualify for Europe can be a major motivator, and games between teams striving for the same two or three places can be particularly attractive to those who like La Liga bets on Stakers.com.
The transformation from the team that finished mid-table last season has been remarkable, and it was noticeable from their opening game. Taking a point apiece from Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid in their first three matches gave them confidence, and they later held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Mestalla. By that time, they had put together a 13-game unbeaten run and were second in the table, behind Barcelona.
Marcelino’s focus has been on strengthening the centre of midfield and defence, and the arrival of Gabriel from Arsenal and Jeison Murillo from Internazionale has created a solidity in the backline that was entirely absent last season, while Marcelino has been able to get the best out of Simone Zaza up front, and has instilled a hard-working team ethos that began with his holding three training sessions per day during the pre-season.
Their tactical approach has also been impressive. Under Marcelino, Valencia have played a compact 4-4-2 formation, working hard to close down opponents and then looking to break forward quickly with direct vertical passing that doesn’t always work but comes off often enough to make the tactic successful. The fact that, in addition to Zaza, they have speedy players such as Rodrigo, Gonçalo Guedes and Carlos Soler enables them to execute these rapid counter-attacks to devastating effect.
Yet while the first half of their season was extremely impressive, their form fell away during the winter. Following the draw with Barcelona, they lost six of their next nine and slipped down to fourth in La Liga, where they remain. Given the comparative youth of their squad, a degree of unpredictability was perhaps inevitable, and their intensive style of play is hard to maintain throughout a long, hard season. With one or two players missing through injury, confidence appeared to desert them and the goals dried up.
Back-to-back victories over Levante and Málaga in February halted the slide and appeared to restore some of the team’s forward momentum, but despite their seven-point cushion over Sevilla, they face a tough battle to hold on to that Champions League spot. Both Sevilla and Villarreal have been holding their form in fifth and sixth, while Eibar have produced a dramatic improvement, rising from 18th at the start of October to eighth, and Celta Vigo have also forced their way into the Champions League reckoning.
For now, Valencia’s fate remains in their own hands. One thing in their favour is the fact that they have only one more game to play against any of the big three. They will also face all four of their pursuers in the closing weeks of the season. A three-game sequence in which they take on Celta Vigo and Villarreal away and Eibar at home could prove to be the decisive period of the season. If Marcelino can help his young side to rediscover the dynamism that they showed in the first half of the season and guide them through that tricky run of fixtures later in the spring, there is every chance that Valencia can defend that top-four spot and return to the Champions League arena once again.