Celades making Mestalla forget Marcelino
Background image: Tot Futbol, CC BY-SA 3.0
Spanish football fans are convinced Mestalla is probably the most difficult stadium for a coach to find support and respect. After two seasons spent guiding Villarreal to 12th in La Liga, Marcelino headed south in 2017 to return Los Che to the Spanish and European elite.
In his first season, Els Taronges were eliminated from the Copa del Rey semifinals by Barcelona in the semifinals. They finished fourth in La Liga, earning the Champions League passport. That success was repeated in season two, this time after a very tough first half-season when the coach faced the sack. The club's Singaporean owner, Peter Lim, backed his coach and his players. They responded, finishing fourth again and defeating Barcelona to hoist the King's Cup.
Just when all seemed to be going so well, the bomb exploded. Marcelino was sacked by Lim and Albert Celades was on the road from Madrid to pick up the pieces. He did so with alacrity. Four months after the club structure was shaken, Valencia is classified for the Champions League Round of 16 as Group H winners, for the same interval in the Copa and pressure Sevilla and Atletico Madrid for a Champions League place in the Liga table.
An inexperienced coach who shies away from the limelight, Celades nonetheless demonstrates the ability to lead. The squad showed the same experience and cohesion to step up in key moments as they did against Barca in last season's Copa final, recording away victories in the Champions League against Chelsea and Ajax. They did it again this weekend, with their first home victory over Barcelona since 2007.
Celades faces the same challenges Marcelino took on at this point a year ago, trying to become more competitive as time passes, move into the Champions League places and defend their Copa crown. With that in mind, the board hopes to add another right-wingback before the winter transfer window shuts.
From summer 2017, captain Dani Parejo appeared in 121 matches. We are talking more than four games per month, not including international duty. The issue is one too long overlooked. Parejo hasn't had a suitable understudy for the past two-and-a-half campaigns. A superman in terms of minutes played and injuries avoided, he is a key reason Valencia's domestic and European aspirations are still alive.
Those European aspirations take centre stage in mid-February. Winning their group limited Los Che's chances of drawing a giant in the first knockout round. Instead, their opponents are ambitious Serie A side, Atalanta. Free-wheeling La Dea conduct their own personal revolution in Lega Calcio going on three seasons now. They represent a difficult challenge. Celades will rely on Mestalla's strength to hold off Duvan Zapata, Josip Ilicic and Papu Gomez but the first leg will be contested at San Siro. The Bergamo side's own ground doesn't meet Champions League requirements. That said, Gian Piero Gasperini's side made the Milan venue a second home after a rough start in group play. Valencia have their work cut out.
If the club atmosphere, both chairman and fans, keep quiet and allow the manager and squad to do their work, the quarterfinals are not beyond them. Nor is a top-four finish and Champions League football in 2020/21. Then again, Peter Lim is one to make changes early in the campaign. The pressure is on Albert Celades to bank as much goodwill as possible between now and next autumn.