All eyes will be on La Liga’s top-of-the-table clash on Sunday night as Valencia – on an eight-game winning streak and inspired by the sparkling Goncalo Guedes – host league leaders Barcelona, who have dropped only two points all season. Something will have to give at the Mestalla but should the home side avoid defeat, nobody will doubt that they form part of the league title race.
It is a remarkable turnaround at Los Che, who have finished 12th in consecutive campaigns. This time span included five managers, a revolving door of players and total chaos and instability both on and off the field. Singaporean owner Peter Lim – who had acquired the club three years earlier – was under serious pressure to either quit or overhaul the club and build a structure to end the underachievement.
The rebuilding job began with the appointment of Lim’s compatriot Anil Murthy as president, but the major move was finally landing the manager who had previously eluded them. The club, under the direction of general director Mateu Alemany, had wanted Marcelino Garcia Toral a year earlier but were denied by league rules. The tactician had steered Villarreal – Valencia’s regional neighbours – back to the top flight in 2013, while recording three consecutive top six finishes and a Europa League semi-final.
He was surprisingly dismissed on the eve of the 2016/17 campaign but La Liga ruled he had effectively managed Villarreal that season, meaning he could not join another top flight club in the country. His appointment at the Mestalla was a long time coming, ensuring he and Alemany moved to make up for lost time. The summer transfer window saw seven arrivals while 16 players departed a bloated first-team squad.
The newly-trimmed ranks now prioritise quality over quantity, with players starring having struggled elsewhere. Norbeto Neto, Gianluigi Buffon’s understudy at Juventus, has thrived while Gabriel Paulista and Jeison Murillo – who struggled to adapt to life outside of La Liga – have formed a formidable central defensive partnership.
Deep-lying midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia is enjoying a rich vein of form in helping the side build from the back after a loan move from Inter and Andreas Pereira, borrowed from Manchester United, adds flair, creativity and ingenuity in the final third. Guedes has been in sensational form since arriving on loan from PSG – where he could not consolidate a first-team spot – and Simone Zaza (signed six months earlier), whose confidence plummeted at Juventus and West Ham, has already hit nine league goals, behind only Lionel Messi.
This side of cast-offs has sparkled, hitting 32 goals and garnering 30 points in an unbeaten opening 12 game run. They hit Real Betis for six, scored five past Malaga and netted four past Sevilla, while they drew at the Bernabeu and held Atletico Madrid. If they can go one better against Barcelona, the will start to dream of a first title in 14 years.