It was not supposed to end like this. David Albelda and Juan Mata had agreed. Now, the agreement must be broken; for one night, they are friends no more. Before the last round of games in the Champions League the former team-mates spoke – the Valencia club captain still at Mestalla 15 years on and the latest star to depart; the man who could have gone to Chelsea and the man who did.
Talk inevitably turned to Group E. We beat Genk, you beat Bayer Leverkusen, Albelda jokingly told Mata, and then we can relax and both go through. Valencia slaughtered Genk 7-0 but Chelsea did not beat Leverkusen and now only one can progress. Assuming, as Albelda does, that Bayer Leverkusen beat Genk, the equation is simple: a victory or a 0-0 draw equals Chelsea going through; anything else and Valencia progress instead.
Chelsea didn't want this. Nor did Valencia. "We played [Genk] with one eye on Chelsea," Albelda says. "We knew Drogba had scored and that the best result was a Chelsea victory. When we reached the dressing room we didn't know they'd lost. It's rare for a group game to end up a knock-out and we would never have chosen to go to London to play for our lives with Chelsea having to win as well."
But if that sounds pessimistic, think again. It is a sunny afternoon at Paterna, Valencia's training ground. The previous night Albelda watched Chelsea get knocked out of the Carling Cup and he has followed their progress. He knows they've lost five of their last 10. Valencia, meanwhile, have been beaten twice in 13. Their record in all competitions reads: played 19, lost three. At 34, Albelda is still integral to their success. He was rested at the weekend to ensure he would be ready on Tuesday night.
"We are going in different directions," he concedes. "We're reaching our peak; Chelsea have doubts. They were favourites and it would be a greater surprise for them to be knocked out than us but that doesn't mean they're under more pressure. It's Chelsea: they've been here before, they know what to do, and just look at the players they have."
Players like Mata, who has three goals and seven assists in the league. "Mata's success doesn't surprise me," Albelda says. "He's a wonderful player with a great attitude. he same is true of [David] Silva, the best in the Premier League: he's very professional, works hard and has exceptional technical quality. He's small but strong. Silva has surprised defenders: they look at him and think they can kick him, but they're wrong. Silva is stronger than Mata but Mata scores more. I knew they'd both adapt easily."
The question is where would Valencia be if they had not been forced to sell the pair for €59m; if they had not sold David Villa to Barcelona for €40m. Valencia had four World Cup winners, now they have none. They've raised over €120m in two years, but it's not enough. Financial reality bites. Under their former president, Juan Soler, their debt spiralled beyond €500m. The exit strategy was a real estate manoeuvre that never materialised: Valencia have two stadiums, one they cannot sell and one they cannot afford to build.
Only now, under a new president, are they finding stability – but at a cost. That they are just four points behind Barcelona with a game in hand is a miracle. Competing with Chelsea likewise.
Valencia paid for Soler's presidency and Albelda more than most. Soler ordered Ronald Koeman to ditch him, Santi Cañizares and Miguel Angel Angulo. No matter that he was the captain, at the club over a decade, and their leader during the successful spell in history, Albelda ended up in court against his president. An international regular until then, inactivity cost him his place at Euro 2008 – a tournament Spain won.
It was then that the opportunity to join Chelsea emerged. "Chelsea had the African Nations Cup coming up, involving Obi Mikel and Essien," Albelda recalls, "and they wanted me as cover. That fact that it was a short-term offer was one of the reasons I said no. It's a pity because I admire the English league and the atmosphere, which is different to Spain, while players like me are also more highly rated in England than here. In Spain's there's a culture of technical, more aesthetic players.
"Yet, still, all teams play with someone like me. Even Barcelona have Busquets, while Madrid play Xabi and Khedira; against us they played with three. The pressure's huge and ultimately what matters is the result, titles."
These days titles seem impossible for Valencia. Champions in 2002 and 2004, last season they finished 21 points behind Madrid. The reason, says Albelda, is simple. "We don't have their resources. Valencia are competing with Chelsea, Madrid and Barcelona and every year we sell them our best players – Villa to Barcelona, Mata to Chelsea …
"Then there are TV contracts: the distribution must be more even. Valencia make a third [€42m] of what Madrid and Barcelona [€125m] do and we're Spain's third biggest club. So, imagine the difference between Madrid and the rest.
"It hurts that we were the best side in Spain, but can't compete now," Albelda says. "Having closed the gap and succeeded in challenging them, it hurts to throw it all away. [Under Soler] we became a mediocre club. For ten years we had coaches with a clear philosophy based on a physical, tactical game. When [Soler] sacked Quique Sanchez Flores [in 2007] we were first in our Champions League group and four points off Madrid at the top of La Liga. They signed Koeman and in months managed to throw away everything we had done over eight or nine years.
"Now we're trying to recover everything we lost, with a coach [Unai Emery] with a similar mind-set as we had with Claudio Ranieri, Rafa Benìtez and Hector Cùper. But with the added economic inconvenience. Every year we weaken and they strengthen. A couple of years ago, Valencia faced the reality – go bankrupt and the club disappears or sell players and confront the debt. The work the club has done is extraordinary. We sell players, the money services the debt and buys new players theoretically on a lower level but determined to match Mata, Villa or Silva."
The latest example is Roberto Soldado. His battle with Fernando Torres is one of the great sub-plots of this drama. Soldado has scored 39 in the last two seasons for his club; Torres five. Yet the Valencia striker still does not get the call to the national team and Torres does. "It's very, very hard for a player to understand when he's playing like that and still not getting in the squad," says Albelda. "He's thinking: 'what more do I have to do?' Spain seems closed. It's not a case of the players who are playing well at any time going, but that [Vicente Del Bosque] has a settled squad. That said, I don't think Roberto is obsessed with Spain or Torres. Players never think to themselves 'that's the guy in my place'. He just tries to score goals."
And how. On Saturday night, Soldado was rested ready for tonight. When Valencia needed a goal he was sent on and within five minutes had scored. "He is," ran one local newspaper, "irreplaceable." The trouble is, Valencia may have to do exactly that. Sadly, the value of Champions League progression is also measured in the value of future transfer fees. Will Soldado, or someone like him, have to go as Villa, Mata and Silva once did? "Yes," says Albelda, "for sure." And then?
"And then we'll have to reinvent ourselves – like we do every year."