A fifth new coach at Valencia in little over a year has arrived and already brought change. But much greater could lie ahead
Juan Antonio Pizzi's train pulled into the station two days after Christmas. He got off the AVE carrying a small leather bag over his shoulder and a bright scarf in red, yellow and orange, wheeling a little suitcase along the platform to where, on the other side of the glass doors, they were waiting for him. Heading through, checked shirt open, chain round his neck, he paused to smile for the cameras. "Valencia CF," the scarf read; "Visca Valencia!", someone shouted from the crowd. Outside, a van was waiting. Pizzi climbed in the side with Manuel Sánchez and Alejandro Richino, turned to them and said: "Incredible." Then the door slid shut on Valencia's new manager – their fifth in little over a year.
Back in the autumn, Valencia's president Amadeo Salvo announced that the coach Miroslav Djukic would end the season "no matter what." He did not even end the year. Djukic was sacked on 16 December; on 22 December, they lost 3-2 under the interim coach Nico Estévez; five days later Pizzi arrived; and the day after that Pizzi was officially presented, drowned in a suit twice as big as he is, like a kid trying on his dad's clothes. Down in Valencia they'd been discussing suits on and off for a couple of years – and now it felt like that was all they were talking about. As for Pizzi, he was talking about Valencia as one of Spain's big teams, one that had to return to "their historic place".
The problem is that Djukic had said much the same and not been able to deliver it. The Serbian coach, a former player popular with the fans, vowed to "awaken the sleeping giant" and promised to take on Madrid and Barcelona. He departed with the team in 10th, 23 points behind Barcelona, 18 behind Real Madrid. His days had been numbered for a while: Salvo had sacked the sporting director and even one of the players, Adil Rami being pushed out to Milan, now it was time to sack the manager. The new director general, Francisco Rufete, and the new technical secretary for Latin America, Roberto Fabián Ayala, both of them former players, were entrusted with finding a replacement.
The timing was impeccable. Two days before, San Lorenzo had won the title in Argentina. God's own team – well, the Pope's anyway – were champions. The man who led them to that success was Pizzi. The Hispano-Argentinian – born in Santa Fé, capped 22 times for Spain – had played for Valencia without much distinction, but he had been top scorer in Spain in 1995-96 while playing for Tenerife and had moved from there to Barcelona. Still only 45, this was his second title as a coach. The first had come with Universidad Católica in Chile. Now, he has passed up the chance to lead San Lorenzo into the Libertadores to return to Valencia 20 years later. "He is young, he is a winner, and he has the desire to fight. That's what we were looking for," Rufete said.
Pizzi began taking his coaching badges in Spain, alongside men like Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, and in his first spell as a player at Tenerife he had worked under Jorge Valdano. "I'm not surprised he has been successful: he was the most intelligent player I had at Tenerife," Valdano said recently. Others were surprised: Pizzi turned round a struggling San Lorenzo side and overcame constant injury problems. Sure, no champions had racked up so few points and the title was clinched with a 0-0 draw, but it was still a massive achievement and he was hugely popular, despite having little time for the usual manager-media politics. Instead he was seen as serious, dedicated, very straight.
On the last night of 2013, Pizzi was in a hotel room in his new home city with his assistants trying to work out how to improve Valencia. The changes include warm-ups in silence to increase concentration but there is more dialogue elsewhere. Greater intensity, too. "If you don't want to live with Valencia's demands, there are other clubs," Pizzi announced. The club captain, Ricardo Costa, described the two men as "very different", talked about how hard it is to be successful "when no one's on top of you and everything you do is 'fine'," and insisted "if you are asked to do one minute, you do one minute". In other words: under Djukic, Valencia barely worked. Pizzi, he said, "likes rhythm and explains things more, he is more communicative".
His first game was the city derby against Levante on Saturday night as La Liga returned after the Christmas break. Valencia had 72% of the possession and 11 shots; Levante had just three. Valencia won 2-0. It was the perfect start.
Pablo Piatti scored the first, controlling neatly on his chest and finishing with a superb shot on the bounce; Sofiane Feghouli got a lovely second, running at the defence and clipping into the far corner. Feghouli had only started seven league games before; Piatti had started just three. He had even had his shirt number taken away from him and given to Dorlán Pabón at the start of the season – as hints go, it was not the most subtle. Together, they provided real width, with both full-backs, Antonio Barragán and Juan Bernat, bombing up alongside them. "Valencia spread their wings," cheered El País. Up front, there were two strikers; in midfield, Dani Parejo played alongside Oriol in a 4-4-2, and Diego Alves was back in goal. They were quick, aggressive, dominant. "I was pleased with the intensity and we dominated the play – which is what I want us to do," Pizzi said.
"Valencia enjoy themselves again under Pizzi," Marca cheered, its match report declaring: "The Pizzi effect was immediate." The fight for the fourth Champions League spot looks set to be fascinating, and on Monday morning most people are including Valencia in the list of candidates. The front cover of the Valencian sports daily Super Deporte welcomes: "Pizzi style."
All of which is true but a word of warning: although they started the game level on points, Levante have never finished ahead of Valencia. Barragán only played because of a late injury to João Pereira, and Helder Postiga still didn't convince. Intensity in the first game is one thing; intensity 10 games later is another. Motivation invariably increases with a new manager. And fans are demanding that Pizzi makes the players sweat, just as fans always do. The issue with Feghouli, Parejo and Piatti had never been talent, but consistency. They, and Valencia, have played well before: they were beaten at home by both Barcelona and Madrid, but each time it was 3-2. Only a late, and rather fortunate, goal from Jesé saw them lose to Madrid. If Valencia are now eighth, they're still 10 points off fourth place with Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Sevilla and probably Villarreal all looking like stronger candidates. Not least because familiar limitations remain.
That may be the fundamental question but it could also be the one with the most immediate solution. Just before Christmas, the Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim made an offer for the club. He would take on the €354m debt, finish building the new stadium and make €40m available for signings. On the day that Pizzi was presented, Rufete appealed for patience and realism, two characteristics too often absent at the Mestalla. "Our resources," he insisted, "are what they are." Maybe not for long.
• And so La Liga returns. Eight games so far. No comebacks, no late winners, little real drama: in fact, not one of the eight games features goals from both teams. Nine of the 16 teams didn't score and only Atlético picked up an away win – with Koke getting the only goal at Málaga. Málaga played with three centre-backs and their coach Bernd Schuster wasn't impressed with suggestions that he had been a bit boring. "People don't get it," he said. "If you think you can play against Atlético as equals, come on, then. I'd pay to see it. Get the line-ups and let's have a look."
• Last game of 2013: no Messi, no Neymar, so Pedro scores a hat-trick. First game of 2014: no Messi, no Neymar, so Alexis Sánchez scores a hat-trick. Barcelona won 4-0 against Elche (who were without Charlie I'Anson) and they moved back to the top after Atlético temporarily moved clear on Saturday night. For all the fears, for all the doubts, and for all that they haven't always convinced, Barcelona have overcome Messi's absence superbly. Next up: Atlético. The game of the season so far. And Messi should be fit. "He's got the look of an assassin," Tata Martino said.
• Ante la duda, la más tetuda? Espanyol's manager Javier Aguirre was sent to the stands for calling the referee an hijo de puta, 'a son of a bitch'. Cue a fabulously foul mouthed post-match press conference. "I said hijo de puta: that's the way I talk," Aguirre admitted, going on to say hijo de puta rather a lot to reinforce the fact that he does indeed say hijo de puta rather a lot. Out came a magnificent stream of Mexican mouthing off, his accent getting stronger with every smirk and every swearword. "Chingada madre, hijo de puta, puta madre," he went on, "I say things like that all the time. It doesn't mean anything; that's just the way I talk. If you look, there's even a banner with it written on. Some referees are a bit more of a laugh, some are more serious. I say it 10 or 15 times a game at least. So, yes, I was rightly sent off but … well, I could have been sent off 152 times."
• Ivan Rakitic was class yet again. No one has created more chances than him in Spain this season and he was at the centre of the best things Sevilla did again, helping create one and scoring another, as they moved up to sixth with a 3-0 victory over Getafe. Carlos Bacca meanwhile made two and scored one. Sevilla have now picked up 16 points in six games.
• Before the game, tables were set up near the ground. Some people were getting together a petition asking the courts not to send José María Del Nido to jail for corruption … on the grounds that he's not a menace to society.
• At times the speed and technique was breath-taking, but clear chances were surprisingly few. Athletic Bilbao had more of the Basque derby but a nicely struck shot from Antoine Griezmann, who's been brilliant this season and has now scored more than anyone other than Cristiano Ronaldo or Diego Costa, gave Real Sociedad a 1-0 lead just before half-time. Rubén Pardo made it 2-0 on the break in the last minute, after a superb 50-yard pass from the goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.
Results: Málaga 0-1 Atlético, Valladolid 0-0 Betis, Valencia 2-0 Levante, Almería 3-0 Granada, Sevilla 3-0 Getafe, Barcelona 4-0 Elche, Osasuna 1-0 Espanyol. Monday night: Real Madrid-Celta, Rayo-Villarreal.