For many years Valencia were one of the best teams in Spain. They won La Liga twice, reaching the European Cup final two years in a row and winning the 2004 UEFA Cup. Even when they had one of their worst seasons in years in 2007-8, they still won the Copa del Rey.
But things changed. The trophies dried up, as did the money. Los Che‘s massive €200m debt with Bankia meant they gained an unwanted reputation as a selling club, forced to flog off the likes of David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata. They sacked Unai Emery for finishing third three years in a row. Managers came and went, all supposed to represent the club’s future. Still the debt lingered, and the club was put up for sale. Spain’s third-biggest club was slowly sinking into the abyss.
That was when Peter Lim arrived. In July the sale of the club to the Singaporean tycoon was approved, but it took until October for Lim to reach an agreement with Bankia and for the takeover to go through. In his absence, the president Amadeo Salvo began to reshape the team. In total, almost 20 players left the club in the summer, with eleven players coming in, all owned by Lim’s company. Juan Antonio Pizzi was sacked and replaced by Nuno Espírito Santo, whose managerial experience consisted of just two years managing Rio Ave in Portugal. Despite being Lim’s choice, Nuno still represented a risk, and many saw him as yet another promising manager who would eventually be thrown on the scrapheap.
So far, however, the summer overhaul seems to have paid off. Nuno has succeeded in uniting a fractured dressing room and is already hugely popular. Thanks to his meticulous training methods he has managed to instil a high-intensity style of play which has got the Mestalla roaring again. Valencia’s form at home has been particularly impressive, with wins against Real (ending Los Blancos’ 22-match unbeaten streak) and reigning champions Atlético, as well as narrowly losing to Barça in November.
The 2-1 win against Carlo Ancelotti’s side was perhaps their best performance so far this season, and summed up Nuno’s style of play. Valencia’s physicality caused lots of problems for Real, and their pressing was relentless. Nuno had decided to play three at the back, a risky strategy but one that worked thanks to the tireless defensive work of Orbán, Otamendi and Mustafi, who shackled Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema remarkably well.
The new signings have fitted in seamlessly; Otamendi has swiftly become a cult hero since his arrival from Porto, Rodrigo is beginning to show real potential, and the wiry André Gomes is the orchestrator at the heart of every attack. Marquee signing Álvaro Negredo has yet to start firing regularly, while Shkodran Mustafi has formed a reliable partnership with Otamendi at the back. The recent signing of Enzo Pérez has already proven to be a huge coup, and the Argentinian has slotted into the line-up with ease.
Elsewhere, there are very few weaknesses in this Valencia team. Dani Parejo seems to have stepped up as captain, as demonstrated by his fine brace in Sunday’s win against Sevilla, and the bruising Javi Fuego has provided a firm base at the heart of midfield, stifling opposition attacks. Academy graduates Paco Alcácer and José Luis Gayà have also flourished under Nuno, albeit Alcácer has slightly tailed off after a blistering start to the season.
The question now is how far Valencia can go. After Sunday’s resounding victory over Sevilla, Nuno’s side are in fourth place with 44 points, and look as if they could cement themselves in the top four. They could even challenge Atlético for third place, with only three points separating the two teams. The only slight cause for concern is their form away from home, but if they can sort this out it is not outlandish to suggest that they could overtake Simeone’s team.
It is a far cry from their situation nine months ago, when they found themselves sinking into mediocrity. While Valencia still have problems, they are slowly making their way back to the top of Spanish football. Peter Lim has revitalised the club, and Nuno has moulded a team that are capable of beating anyone. If they can hold on to most of this side for next season, there is every chance that they could mount a title challenge. Welcome back Valencia, we’ve missed you.