Valencia aiming for the big time

28th November 2013

For many years, Valencia were considered one of the powerhouses of European football. Regulars in the Champions League and riding high in La Liga, the race was on to compete with Spain's top two clubs. But, as Andy West explains, a decline in fortunes have meant that Los Che are doing it the hard way...

When Valencia ended a run of three consecutive La Liga losses by securing a hard-fought 1-0 victory at Getafe earlier this month, manager Miroslav Djukic offered an objective verdict on his team's current status.

"Before this game we weren't so bad, and now we're not so fantastic," said the straight-talking Serbian boss.

Could be worse, could be better. It's an accurate assessment of Valencia's opening three months of the season, which saw them suffer sufficient demoralising defeats to throw Djukic under the spotlight, but also pick up just about enough points to prevent that pressure from becoming unsustainable.

The good news for fans of Los Che is that their team is capable of significant improvement. Djukic was only appointed in the summer, replacing Athletic Bilbao-bound Ernesto Valverde to become the team's fourth manager in just over a year, and he is still in the process of instilling his coaching and playing methods.

Djukic certainly has plenty of talent at his disposal within his cosmopolitan pool of players. Midfield creator Ever Banega is a regular in the Argentina squad; winger Dorlan Pabon is hoping to go to the World Cup with Colombia; versatile forward Jonas is a full Brazil international, and experienced Portuguese trio Helder Postiga, Joao Pereira and Ricardo Costa were all involved in the play-off victory against Sweden.

Throw in the emergence of a batch of promising youngsters, including left-sided Juan Bernat and twinkle-toed Argentine Fede Cantabria, and it's clear that Valencia have the potential to climb much higher than their current mid-table position as well as sustaining a challenge in the Europa League.

They also have a capable coach. Former Valencia, Deportivo La Coruna and Yugoslavia defender Djukic made his managerial reputation with a successful spell at Real Valladolid, leading them to promotion in 2012 and then securing a comfortable mid-table finish last season despite operating on a shoestring budget.

Djukic enjoys the full support of his club president, Amadeo Salvo, who has repeatedly offered firm and convincing backing for his manager even during this season's many dark hours, such as the 3-0 humbling against the Swans at the Mestalla in September, a 4-1 thrashing at newly-promoted Villarreal and a 2-1 home defeat against previously winless Almeria.

There has been one high-profile scapegoat, however, with director of football Braulio Vazquez being sacked last month after four years in his post.

And Braulio's dismissal hints at the behind-the-scenes turbulence resulting from the club's rampant financial problems, which can largely be attributed to their attempts to build a glittering new stadium, the Nou Mestalla.

Nearly €100 million has already been invested into the project, but funding ran out when the Spanish economy collapsed and the half-built arena has been left untouched for four years.

Club president Salvo has identified completing the construction of the new stadium as his priority, and he recently unveiled an agreement with chief architect Mark Fenwick - an Englishman who is heavily involved with Qatar's infrastructure plans for the 2022 World Cup - to reduce the budget by €60 million, meaning another €100 million is required.

Earlier this month Salvo travelled to China and the Middle East in an attempt to drum up new sponsorships to provide the necessary funding, and the ongoing financial pressures are creating an unnerving backdrop to Valencia's attempts to re-establish themselves amongst La Liga's elite.

Those economic difficulties were exacerbated, of course, by last season's failure to qualify for the Champions League - a final day 4-3 defeat at Sevilla meant they finished fifth, one point behind Real Sociedad.

The loss of Champions League revenue led to the departure of a host of players, including star striker Roberto Soldado to Tottenham. More sales may be necessary in the upcoming January transfer market, with gifted but infuriatingly inconsistent Banega regularly linked with a number of Premier League clubs.
As they seek to overcome those restraints, one major challenge confronting Djukic and his players is rising to the pressure exerted by their team's notoriously demanding fans.

Historically, Valencia are the third-most successful club in Spanish football, winning La Liga on six occasions and claiming the Copa del Rey seven times - indeed, they are the last team other than Barcelona or Real Madrid to have taken the league title, triumphing under the management of Rafa Benitez in 2002 and 2004.

They have also enjoyed relatively recent success on the European stage, reaching back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 (losing against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively) and winning the UEFA Cup in 2004.

Those successes created a climate of expectation, with anything less than third in La Liga and a decent European campaign regarded as failure by the club's unforgiving fans.

Fortunately, Djukic is fully familiar with the demands of his working environment as a result of his playing days with the club, which saw him play in those two Champions League finals and the 2001/2002 La Liga title campaign.

And he has every chance of leading Valencia back into the Champions League at the end of the current season. Although the top three places in La Liga will undoubtedly be filled by Barcelona and the two Madrid clubs, the race for fourth is wide open and Valencia should be capable of staking their claim.

Buoyed by last season's promotion, Villarreal are the early pacesetters but they possess a relatively thin squad and will struggle to maintain their current momentum all the way through the campaign. Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and possibly Sevilla will also challenge but, if they can withstand their off-the-pitch pressures, Valencia have the ability to more than match them.

And although a prolonged run in the Europa League would be welcomed, returning to the Champions League is undoubtedly this season's priority - especially considering the much-needed financial boost it would provide.

These are tough times at Valencia, but if president Salvo can attract the funding to finally complete the new stadium and manager Djukic is given time to mould his talented squad, better days could be just around the corner.

This article is just one of a number of features appearing in Thursday's edition of Jack Magazine.
Also included in our matchday magazine for the Europa League tie against Valencia, we bring you an account from journalist Sid Lowe's book on the El Clasico derby and Michael Laudrup's involvement.
Aside from that, there is a Q&A with Gerhard Tremmel; Neil Taylor goes under the spotlight in Football Firsts and a selection of some of the best fans pics from the Swans' memorable win at the Mestalla in September in our 76-page edition.

Jack Magazine is available around the ground and online,plus Slee Stores in Plasmarl, Coggers on Wind Street and Browns Newsagent in Landore.