In a summer dominated by stories about how much better the top two of La Liga are than the rest, you would have been forgiven for thinking that if there were going to be 2 teams with flawless records going into the fourth round of games, their identities would be obvious. Yet, at this embryonic stage, Valencia and Real Betis have raised a few surprises. Betis are just happy to be here, but Valencia have genuine aspirations to make that #1 spot their own; and why not?
After all, when you look at the ingredients required for a title winning side, Valencia seem to have all the bases covered. Tactically astute, popular, and innovative coach? Check, in the form of Unai Emery. Solid defence? 3 clean sheets in their four games in the League and Champions League Group stage. Creative midfield? Canales, Piatti, Parejo all bring quality, with Ever Banega playing slightly deeper and looking more top class with each season. Most importantly, a true striker to provide goals? In Spain so far this year, one word has become a synonym for a goalscorer - Soldado.
Confidence and enthusiasm at the Mestella have reached levels not seen since Rafael Benitez's reign in charge. Indeed, plans are afoot to honour Benitez before the big clash with Barcelona on Wednesday. Perhaps even in an attempt to channel some of the mojo that brought 2 Ligas and a UEFA Cup with the former Liverpool boss in charge. On current form though, they won't need it.
Los Che have finished 3rd two seasons in a row so far under Emery's tenure, with identical totals of wins, losses, draws, and points both years. It would be easy to say the club has stagnated; but the contract extension handed to the ex-Almeria boss shows his superiors have total faith that Emery is the man to take the club to the next level - by mounting a title challenge.
Valencia have long suffered financial troubles, and been marked as a selling club having lost stars like Davids Silva and Villa in recent seasons and star man Juan Mata a few weeks back. Yet this summer, in addition to his extension, Emery was backed by the board in a big way monetarily. He was able to spend €32m, less than the price El Guaje went for alone, but the club used their money as wisely and astutely as any other side in Europe.
Top class U21 international Sergio Canales found himself frozen out at Real Madrid and arrived on a two season long loan which could easily be the deal of the summer. Then again, the deal of the summer could also be Argentine star Pablo Piatti from Almería for only €8m. Or Dani Parejo from Getafe for €6m. Top drawer defenders Victor Ruiz and Adil Rami, coming from Napoli and Lille, respectively, might also have a shout. Throw in one of La Liga's top rated custodians in GK Diego Alves, also an ex-Almería man, and it's easy to see why the excitement is building around the Mestella.
Now, though, Valencia clearly face their toughest test so far. Last weekend, Osasuna were in a place no other club in the world would ever want to find themselves - facing a Barcelona with something to prove. The Blaugrana were like a wounded animal, relentless in their attack and proving to any doubters that 2 draws is not a crisis with a stunning 8 goal victory. Valencia should keep the scoreline much more respectable than that, but what they get from it will depend on their coach's attitude to the game - will he place responsibility on his solid defensive unit, or use those creative attackers to take the game to a team that could truly make him pay for it?
Emery rotated tactics at times last season, featuring in a 4-2-3-1 as well as a standard 4-4-2, but he has preferred the former this season. Most teams would crumble at the loss of a star like Mata, but the new acquisitions can ensure his loss is not felt. In doing so, they would do well to take a lesson from the exact job Roberto Soldado is doing in that department, in terms of David Villa. Villa was simply outstanding at the club, with 129 goals in 5 seasons, an average of 26 a year. Soldado failed to make the grade at Real Madrid, but has found his feet in La Liga more and more as more confidence is placed in him. He did well at Osasuna, and then Getafe, which seems to be the perennial home of Bernabeu cast-offs, before a breakout year last season in Valencia.
Right now, Soldado is as on form as any other striker in Europe, on a level with the likes of Wayne Rooney or Edinson Cavani. He is scoring goals for fun, with 5 in his first 3 league games, and will undoubtedly be the biggest threat Barcelona's defence have faced domestically so far this season. He now seems to be a unanimous preference in Spain to partner the man he replaced at the Euro 2012 Championships and his goal scoring run is showing no signs of letting up.
The battle should be fascinating. Barcelona-Valencia games may have lost the glamour status they carried at the beginning of the previous decade; but this time around, Barca have to travel to face a rejuvenated club with real ambition. Emery's men will have a chip on their shoulder that should prove difficult to surpass. After years spent in limbo, this time around, Valencia are a truly formidable foe.
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