Valencia all but back in Champions League as hard graft pays off

It may be only two years since the club were last in Europe’s premier contest but it feels like a watershed as a return looms

“They’re all talking about that long run in the dressing room,” Gabriel Paulista said. It had been 14 years, after all. On Saturday, Valencia beat Sevilla 2-0 at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, the first time they had won there since May 2004, back when Pep Guardiola was a midfielder, not a manager, Lionel Messi had not played a senior game and Sergio Ramos was just starting out, a 19-year-old dreaming of Claudio Caniggia. Of the 30 footballers who took to the field that day, he and Dani Alves are the only ones still going and now have 52 titles between them. Then, they had one. Sevilla, the record-holding, five-times Uefa Cup/Europa League winners, had never even won the trophy once. And as for Valencia: well, they were the best team in Spain.

Things have changed, all right. One thing that didn’t was the result. Back then, goals from Vicente Rodríguez and Rubén Baraja gave Valencia victory; better still, victory carried them to the league title, for the second time in three years under Rafa Benítez. Ten days later, they won the Uefa Cup, too. This time, 14 years and no Valencia victories later, two goals from Rodrigo Moreno secured a win that also carried Valencia back to the Champions League, all but guaranteeing them at least fourth as it lifted them 11 points, plus head-to-head goal difference clear of their opponents in fifth.

“Until we’re mathematically there, we can’t say so but this is a big victory, and it puts us in a position we would have all signed up for, so we’re tremendously happy,” said Marcelino García Toral, Valencia’s manager. When it was suggested to Rodrigo it would take a “disaster” for them not to make it, he replied: “Football is made up of disasters.” But it’s virtually done. Valencia have to lose at least four times to miss out when they have only lost six in La Liga all season. A few weeks ago, Marcelino insisted: “We’re not doing all this work to finish fifth or sixth.” No, they were doing all this work to finish in the top four. Now, they almost certainly will.

“We have to celebrate this,” Gabriel said.

It is little more than two years since Valencia were in the Champions League, so a return may not seem like a watershed but that’s how it felt and there was something in the celebrations that spoke to that sensation. Their last night in the competition was Gary Neville’s first at the club, a limp exit against Lyon, and they finished that season closer to relegation than Europe; for much of last season, the threat was the same. Two consecutive 12th-placed finishes represented their worst campaigns for 27 years and since that defeat they have changed presidents, brought in more than a dozen players, shipped out more than 30 of them and had five managers.

But then this summer everything changed. Anil Murthy took over as president, Mateu Alemany became director general and Marcelino was hired as coach. During pre-season in the US, he was unhappy about how dry the pitch was; 10 minutes later, the local fire department was hosing it down. For staff, who have kept photos, it was symbolic of the seriousness and the attention to detail, as well as the determination. It was also just the start. The diet was changed, the style, too. Captain Dani Parejo admitted the players were going “hungry”. He meant it literally but it was also felt metaphorically: the talent was there and Marcelino recovered footballers whose level had dropped and brought in others with something to prove. He even got a goal out of winter arrival Francis Coquelin. Marcelino also got rid of those likely to get in the way; the clean-up began.

Now, they’re virtually back in the Champions League.

In the end, when it came down to it, when it came to fourth against fifth for a Champions League place, Valencia at Sevilla 10 weeks from the end, three touches were pretty much all it took to get them there. In a game in which Sevilla hit the bar, had a penalty shout turned down and drew a superb save from Neto, when they had more of the ball, more shots and more chances, Geoffrey Kondogbia’s wonderful 40-yard pass came out of the blue. Long, diagonal and over the defence, it found Rodrigo, who controlled superbly and slotted in. They were all set. Kondogbia, described by one paper as “brutal, unstoppable, immense, a total footballer”, then burst through two challenges to provide the second, again finished off by Rodrigo.

Sevilla president Pepe Castro called the result “unfair”. But he recognised Sevilla have not been good enough. No one in Valencia really cared whether Saturday was unfair. “Take that!” shouted the cover of Super Deporte, one headline inside sneering: “Cry me a Guadalquivir.” Two days before the game, Sevilla’s players had gathered for a paella at the training ground. The next day, one journalist from Valencia, where the dish is from, described it as a “pseudo paella” and asked Marcelino if he hoped his opponents would “choke on it”. “I hope they enjoy it,” he replied, although he did say he liked “Valencian paella better than Sevillian paella”. He added: “There’s a big rivalry and that’s good for football.” And that was part of the point, part of the reason why the focus was not only on returning to Europe’s premier club competition, where they have been plenty of times since 2004.

After all, qualification was not always enough, as Unai Emery found – a success that did not satisfy. There was something more and anyway, with time the context changed, the sense of status and competition. For more than a decade they could not win at the Pizjuán. There were painful moments, too, such as a late, late Stéphane M’Bia goal taking Sevilla to the Uefa Cup final in Valencia’s place and Quique Sánchez Flores losing his job – and the cumulative effect was crushing, as was the context. It was a decade in which they were overtaken by Sevilla and then Atlético; in which their identity as the only team who could beat Real Madrid (and Barcelona) was taken. That was why the focus was on ending a 14-year run, on emulating the team from 2004. The preview on Valencia’s website asked if Neto could be Cañizares, if Kondogbia’s could occupy Albelda’s “engine room” and if Guedes could “climb aboard Vicente’s motorbike”.

This Valencia are not that Valencia but the aspiration mattered, the desire to approach their former selves, to focus on that title-winning team. Twice Champions League runners-up, twice league champions, Uefa Cup winners, Valencia were Spain’s best team then, declared the world’s best by the IFFHS. Two years later, it was Sevilla, and they slipped away, not yet to return. Sevilla have won nine titles since May 2004; Valencia have had 19 managers and 10 presidents and one Copa del Rey, which too few felt like really celebrating. Oh, and three players in court, taken there by their own president.

They still have two stadiums but at least they have a team now, a clear sense of direction and winning on Saturday seemed symbolic somehow, like a statement, a rebellion, a recovery, maybe even the beginning of bid to reclaim their status. That may be a false dawn, and they have had more of those than Truman Burbank, but there’s something about Valencia; a feeling they can compete again. If they haven’t quite made it back into the Champions League yet, maybe they have made it back, full stop. Seville said so; in the dressing room they said it, too. “We have won here and that says a lot about us,” Marcelino said.

Talking points

• “New manager, guaranteed victory,” they say. Mostly they’re wrong but this time they were right. Paco López took over at Levante and they finally won, 15 games later. “This gives us life,” said Coke, the goalscorer after a 1-0 win at Getafe. (That’s Coke the goalscorer as opposed to Koke, the sub who was sent off). Levante are four points clear of the relegation zone. Below them, things don’t look good for Málaga – beaten 2-0 by Barcelona, for whom Ousmane Dembélé impressed. Málaga’s manager José González was busy talking about “dignity” – which is one way of admitting you’re dying. Sadly, there’s been little dignity at the Rosaleda this season.

Levante’s Roger Marti shows the officials the damage to his face after a challenge.
Levante’s Roger Marti shows the officials the damage to his face after a challenge. Photograph: Shot for Press/Action Plus via Getty Images

• Speaking of which … “It was a very bad, very bad, very bad, very bad day in every way. It was a disaster,” said Las Palmas manager Paco Jémez, going all Paco Jémez and sailing dangerously close to self-parody again after his side were defeated by Villarreal. He challenged a journalist who asked whether he had prepared the new formation with two up front, snapping: “I won’t let you question my professionalism; I am a great professional. Don’t you question my professionalism, don’t you even think about it!” But it wasn’t that which stood out, it was this: “This was a day where if the club had the money, they say up yours to everyone, and me first of all, and bring in 24 new men,” he said. “There’s no solution. Now we have to work until we burst. And anyone who doesn’t is out of here. Work until we burst, until our liver’s coming out our mouths. Everyone. Because if we’re going down we’re going down with pride and dignity.”

• Antoine Griezmann did a Puskás for the first and then provided a gorgeous assist for the second as Atlético beat Celta 3-0 at home. Captain Gabi was asked about Griezmann’s future, which most expect to be in Barcelona. “I’m not going to demand that anyone feels like an atlético,” Gabi said. “All I am going to demand is that for as long as he is here, he gives his life.”

• “Sergio Ramos crapped himself a little bit,” Zinedine Zidane said after Real Madrid’s 2-1 win at Eibar. Halfway through the second half, Ramos sidled up to the referee (who really should have sidled away), and whispered: “I’ve got to go.” And so, he went. Almost five minutes later, he was back again. In his absence, Inui missed a great chance for Eibar – and he paid for it. Cristiano Ronaldo, who’d scored the first off Luka Modric’s absurdly good pass, got a second to secure victory.

Girona 2-1 Deportivo La Coruña, Eibar 1-2 Real Madrid, Sevilla 0-2 Valencia, Getafe 0-1 Levante, Málaga 0-2 Barcelona, Espanyol 2-1 Real Sociedad, Atlético Madrid 3-0 Celta Vigo, Las Palmas 0-2 Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao 2-0 Leganés

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Barcelona 28 59 72
2 Atletico Madrid 28 36 64
3 Real Madrid 28 37 57
4 Valencia 28 24 56
5 Sevilla 28 -6 45
6 Villarreal 28 6 44
7 Girona 28 4 43
8 Eibar 28 -6 39
9 Celta Vigo 28 3 38
10 Real Betis 27 -9 37
11 Getafe 28 7 36
12 Athletic Bilbao 28 -2 35
13 Espanyol 28 -8 35
14 Real Sociedad 28 0 33
15 Leganes 28 -11 33
16 Alaves 27 -15 31
17 Levante 28 -19 24
18 Las Palmas 28 -37 20
19 Deportivo La Coruna 28 -34 19
20 Malaga 28 -29 13