Group Stage Fan Preview: Valencia

Valencia CF are back in the UEFA Champions League after two seasons out. The last time Valencia played in the CL, it was a disaster. They had just come off a solid season in La Liga under Nuno Espirito Santo and were expected to build on it. Their squad at the time looked really good and all they needed to do was strengthen and keep their best players heading into the new (15/16) season. That did not happen. Instead, they had a messy summer that saw key figures at the club resign over the unforgettable Rodrigo Caio saga and a key player like Otamendi leave for big money with an inferior replacement coming in. In summary, rather than strengthen, they got weaker. The result was an embarrassing CL campaign that saw them finish behind Zenit and Gent after getting battered in Russia and Belgium. They began that CL campaign with Nuno Espirito Santo and ended it with Gary Neville, whose debut was their final must-win game at Mestalla versus Lyon…which they lost 0-2.

It is on this backdrop that this summer was approached by the club. Once again, they were coming off an unexpectedly excellent season under a new manager. They went all out to ensure that they did not make the same mistakes from three summers ago. This time, they kept their best players; Rodrigo stayed despite being linked with Real Madrid all summer, Parejo stayed despite links to Barcelona, Kondogbia was signed permanently, Guedes was also signed permanently after a long drawn out transfer saga. On top of that, they strengthened important positions based on the manager’s wishes which all in the backroom were in agreement with, unlike in 2015. Of course, fan favourite Simone Zaza has been loaned out to Torino with Michy Batshuayi and Kevin Gameiro coming in – based on Marcelino’s wishes. It is still to be seen if new Right Back signing Cristiano Piccini is actually an upgrade on Martin Montoya. The early signs have understandably led to a great deal of pessimism but not conclusions can be drawn yet. He still has a lot of adapting to do. All in all, it looks like they had a much better summer following CL qualification than they did in 2015 and the vibes at the club are mostly positive. However, the results will ultimately tell. As it is, Valencia have their strongest squad – from starting XI down to bench – since 2009/2010 and perhaps their most balanced squad since 2006/2007.

Valencia have been put in a tough group with Italian Champions Juventus, 2017 Europa League Winners Manchester United and Young Boys. As much as they would fancy their chances, they are definitely not the bookies’ favourites to come out of that group. They would need to deliver quality performances in all 6 group games to get out of the group against such difficult opponents. It’s a much tougher draw than their 2015/2016 draw which they ultimately messed up. So which players hold the key to Valencia’s Champions League destiny this season?

Players To Watch

Gonçalo Guedes: There was hysteria in Valencia and amongst Valencia fans when it was announced that Valencia had permanently secured the signing of Guedes, for the next 6 seasons after a long summer of uncertainty, for a club record fee. The hysteria was understandable, the excitement was almost palpable. They had finally gotten a genuine potential superstar who wants to be at the club. It was probably Valencia’s most exciting signing since Joaquin in 2006 for a then-club-record-fee.

Guedes’ performances last season while on loan, especially in the first 5 months of the season, were enough to convince the fans that they have a gem on their hands. He was Valencia’s Top Assister and one of the best three youngsters in La Liga last season. A lightning-quick player, Guedes is most comfortable on the left wing where he often comes in from to devastating effect. He is also a handful when he goes to the byline. He excellent close control and dribbling skills mean that he can get past his man fairly easily. On the counter attack, he is a menace. Although he doesn’t quite like Cristiano Ronaldo comparisons, they are inevitable. Even if he and 21-year old Cristiano do not exactly play alike, they have many similarities and Guedes is almost as exciting a talent as Cristiano was as a youngster. Guedes also seems to have a mean shot in him – unfortunately, he spent last season hitting shots to the next compound. Once he perfects his shooting, he will be more of a problem than he currently is.

Simply put, Guedes is Valencia’s x-factor player. When their backs are against the wall and they need someone to produce some magic, Guedes will be that go-to guy. Will he deliver again this season, and take them to great heights in the CL? Time will tell.

Rodrigo Moreno: Until last season, Rodrigo Moreno Machado was widely considered a flop. Signed for a club record fee, he simply failed to consistently deliver the performances he was signed for. His goal return was atrocious – thanks in large part to his poor finishing. Another factor was that he was being played out of position.Marcelino immediately corrected that last season and everyone finally saw the Rodrigo that had been tipped for greatness in his younger years. Playing as the Supporting Striker in Marcelino’s flat 4-4-2, Rodrigo is the key to Valencia’s attacking excellence. Despite being the club’s top scorer last season, it was his ability to link midfield with attack that stood out the most last season. He picked the ball in deep areas and advanced it a lot, combining well with the now-departed Zaza. Rodrigo’s ability to drift all around just in front of the midfield and participate in some intricate interplay while getting the ball to the more dangerous areas is his best asset – as well as his trademark turn. His finishing is now also really good; prime example being his game at Sanchez-Pizjuan last season.

Valencia’s best striker and one of Spain’s finest players, Rodrigo will carry a huge responsibility for goals this season. If he turns up with his best in the CL this season, Valencia’s chances of getting out of their group will be greatly increased.

Geoffrey Kondogbia & Dani Parejo: Geoffrey Kondogbia surprised a lot of people last season with his performances in the centre of midfield for Valencia. After getting completely written off by all and sundry following his horrible time at Inter, he landed in Valencia with a lot questions marks and got rid of them within two months. His debut at Santiago Bernabeu was memorable and he capped it off with a goal that almost won the game. From that point on, he did not look back.

Dani Parejo has been one of the most consistent La Liga performers over the past 7 seasons. The Valencia captain has evolved as he has gotten new partners season after season, adding new facets to his game every time. Last season, he was at the centre of Valencia’s brilliant season, directing and conducting play on the pitch, breaking lines and contributing set piece winners when needed.

Kondogbia and Dani Parejo operate in a two-man midfield, with Carlos Soler often tucking in when Valencia is without the ball. Their great combination was one of the best things about La Liga in 2017/2018. Their roles consistently change in the course of games. When Kondogbia advances with the ball, Parejo sits. When Parejo advances with the ball, Kondogbia sits. They move in sync and hardly ever leave any spaces as they do. The goal of Marcelino’s 4-4-2 is compactness and the Kondo-Parejo chain ensures that almost every time. Whenever either of them is having a bad game, it affects the team and its overall play.

Valencia need Parejo and Kondogbia to be at their best if they are to stand any chance of getting out of the group. The team and formation are built on their solidity. If they play, Valencia play. If they don’t, Valencia don’t.

Neto Murara: Goalkeepers are often overlooked when considering great teams and key players. They only seem to be noticed when the rest of the team isn’t playing well. Well, Neto showed last season how important a goalkeeper can be and how key he can be to the success to the team, even when they are playing well. Last season, he made the second highest saves per game in La Liga. The only person who made more was Chichizola of Las Palmas, who finished 19th and conceded 74 goals (Chichizola played 27 of their games). It’s remarkable that Neto ended up 4th for goals conceded per game. Key saves in games versus Sevilla, Levante, Real Sociedad, Athletic Club and more ensured Valencia were able to get a CL place by the end of the season.

This season, Neto would need to come up big for Valencia again, especially if they are to do anything memorable in the CL. It’s not enough to have great attacking talents if your defence manages to mess up their good work. Neto’s performances will be key, especially considering the array of attacking talents Valencia will face.
VERDICT: Valencia will be a difficult opponent in the CL. They have a quality XI and a solid bench as well as an x-factor player in Guedes. If a team has it in them to upset the odds and get themselves into the second round, it’s definitely Valencia.

By: Astorre S. Cerebronè.

Photo: EFE