How tight is Peter Lim's leash on new Valencia boss Albert Celades?
Background image: Skaller, CC BY-SA 3.0
Turbulence and Valencia CF never seem too far apart. It’s no exaggeration to say the last two decades were a bumpy road for Los Che aficionados.
Two title triumphs in 2001-02 and 2003-04 under Rafa Benitez were followed by a dismal tenth place finish in La Liga in 2007-08, a season of three managers but also a shock Copa del Rey triumph. They climbed back to sixth in the next campaign, then inhabited third for three straight years, followed by a rocky stretch from 2012-17, during which they managed a fourth and a fifth but also an eighth and two twelfths. In the last two sessions, they've returned to fourth and, of course, pulled off another stunning Copa victory over Barcelona. Meanwhile, they still inhabit Mestalla while their proposed new stadium, originally set to open a decade ago, remains an unfinished building site.
The last spell of success was engineered by Marcelino but when Els Taronges struggled in this season's first three matches, the board didn't hesitate to replace him with Albert Celades. And if you think all that doesn't qualify as turbulence, consider Marcelino's opinion that owner Peter Lim fired him for winning the Copa del Rey.
I am absolutely sure that the trigger for this situation was the Copa del Rey. During the season, we received direct and indirect messages that we had to discount it. They didn't tell me why they didn't want the Copa, only that it was a minor tournament and that I could be putting the main goal [Champions League qualification] at risk.
Given that sensational accusation, supporters and pundits believed Los Che pressed the self-destruct button. Celades, a former Barcelona and Real Madrid defensive midfielder, lacked experience. He previously coached Spain’s national youth teams alongside a very brief spell as Julen Lopetegui’s assistant at the Santiago Bernabeu last term.
Celades’ first week in charge included trips to the Camp Nou and Stamford Bridge. Thrown in at the deep end hardly begins to describe the task. Yet, in adversity, strength is found. Despite a 5-2 loss to the Catalan giants, Celades masterminded a shock 1-0 victory in the Champions League over Frank Lampard and Chelsea thanks to Rodrigo's second-half strike.
In the 18 games since, Valencia recorded eight wins but lost only three. Celades steadied the ship if it was in fact ever adrift. Favouring a 4-4-2 formation, Valencia rely heavily on wide combination play. Both fullbacks frequently overlap their wingers, sending crosses high and low into the box. Captain Dani Parejo is in peak form, creating and scoring goals. Rodrigo and Maxi Gomez display promise as a strike partnership when healthy and paired together.
An away victory over last term’s Champions League semifinalist, Ajax, qualified Los Che for the knockout rounds as group winners. In La Liga, Celades' squad showed resilience by grinding out a one-goal draw at the Metropolitano against Atletico Madrid. They were also moments away from defeating Real Madrid at home last weekend. Only a Karim Benzema strike from Thibaut Courtois' header at the death prevented a memorable victory.
Celades' best trick is producing these results with the long line stretching outside the physio's room. Denis Chershyev, Goncalo Guedes, Lee Kang-In, Cristiano Piccini, Maxi Gomez, Jasper Cillessen and Kevin Gameiro all queue up at the moment. Most are regular first-team stars. When they return in the New Year, it will be like the club made a host of new signings.
Los Che are eighth going into the weekend's action, only three points from Getafe in fourth and one more below Sevilla in third. No one is going to catch Real Madrid and Barcelona but Celades has every reason to believe he can keep his side in the Champions League next year. Valencia also participate in the expanded, four-team Spanish Super Cup in January, their semi-final against Real Madrid offering a chance for revenge after the Merengues' late leveller.
That, of course, assumes owner Peter Lim values the competition and doesn't instruct Celades to rotate his most important players to the bench to keep them fresh for league play. If that occurs, Celades will be tested. Will he value his job or the competitive spirit of his players and the supporters? He isn't flying the friendly skies just yet.