With 49 minutes gone at Mestalla last Sunday, Real Betis fullback Riza Durmisi strode with the ball at his feet towards the halfway line. As his pace of stride accelerated, it was met by the piercing studs of Valencia captain Enzo Perez. In a horrific piece of soccer tackling, the Argentine violently speared Durmisi’s left leg, sending the Dane to the pitch in agony, and maybe, since he emerged injury-free, relief. Perez was immediately given a red card by the official. Four minutes later, Joaquin slotted Betis’s second goal past keeper Diego Alves to make it 2-0 to the visitors. What was once called “the City of Joy,” had given itself over to pain. And not for the first time.
Although they temporarily canceled out Betis’s two-goal lead on Sunday — with a rather spirited display, too — Valencia ultimately coughed the match up when Ruben Castro won it for the Beticos in injury-time, introducing them to rock bottom. Actually, Valencia have been colliding with the basement floor of their incompetence quite often over the last twelve months and change. It’s sort of become their thing.
After losing their first two La Liga games of this campaign to Las Palmas and Eibar, that last-gasp winner from Castro has landed Los Che in 19th Place after three games, with zero points to their name, ahead of Celta Vigo on goal-difference. It’s their worst top-flight start in seventeen years.
But even in hind-sight, Los Che’s now-year-long tumble isn’t easy to telegraph. Under Nuno Espirito Santo in 2014-15, Valencia were back to being one of La Liga’s premiere sides after two straight sub-top-four finishes. Marrying an indomitable defensive triangle of keeper Alves and central-defenders Shkodran Mustafi and Nicolas Otamendi, with an energetic belt of young gems like Paco Alcacer, Rodrigo Moreno, and Andre Gomes, the Portuguese constructed a dangerous but well-balanced squad that was more-than-ready to compete. Their subsequent 4th Place finish confirmed that.
Then the summer came, with its heat and discontent. Otamendi was sold to Manchester City, effectively fracturing what was an increasingly fearsome defensive unit. Rather than bring in new players to rejuvenate a progressing squad, Valencia owner Peter Lim, with the help of infamous super-agent Jorge Mendes, brought in three under-20’s for the future, as well as making the loan-deals of multiple pre-existing players permanent. While not an entirely defective plan on-the-surface, there were two parties Lim and Mendes chose to, well, largely ignore in their transfer dealings: their manager and their fans.
Nuno ended up falling out with Valencia’s club-record signing, Alvaro Negredo, which was only the beginning of a toxic environment that would engulf Mestalla. As fate would have it, the results began to slip, and the notoriously acidic Valencia supporters began to voice their frustration.
Following a 1-0 loss at Sevilla in late November, and with a certain Champions League group-stage elimination awaiting, Nuno resigned from his post. Friend and business-partner of Lim, Gary Neville, was subsequently handed the reigns. What followed, if you haven’t heard, was an categorical disaster. Three Primera victories in sixteen games saw Neville sacked in less than four months. The club immediately appointed assistant Pako Ayestaran as interim boss. Under the Spaniard, results only moderately improved, and Los Che finished the season with three wins, one draw, and four losses, steering them into 12th Place. At the season’s end, Valencia hired Ayestaran as their permanent gaffer on a two-year deal. A summer transfer window of purging the club’s best players, then scurrying on Deadline Day to replace them, just about brings us all up-to-date.
Things are justifiably tetchy at Mestalla right now. But what’s even more concerning about Valencia’s early-season troubles is that reports are now confirming that Pako Ayestaran could be coaching for his job this coming weekend against Athletic Bilbao. Whether or not the Spaniard being ousted would help Los Che, the simple existence of this unrest between board and manager signals a lack of confidence and an abundance of uncertainty. It hints towards a frazzled club reaching for the stars with their eyes closed. Were they to extend their belief to Ayestaran, we’d be able to garner some sort of planned strategy to their methods. But instead, the decisions seem imprudent. Everything is emotional and nothing matters.
If there’s a silver lining to Valencia’s cloud tsunami, it’s that they’ve actually been playing quite well. In these three opening Liga matches, they’ve managed to create dozens of quality scoring chances (24 shots against Betis, with 10 on-target) through an enterprising brand of football. Their attacking platoon of Santi Mina, Rodrigo, Nani, and Munir has looked menacing in spurts. Defensively, they’ve been underwhelming, but when you consider that their current starting central partnership of Ezequiel Garay and Eliaquim Mangala both arrived in town just a fort-night ago, one might afford them a grace period. But this is also what makes Valencia’s fall so compelling and poignant: even when the football is sound, and the opportunities are seemingly there, the result finds a way to betray them. This has been the case for much of the last year, honestly, even when Nuno and Neville were being publicly castrated by Los Che supporters on the Mestalla touchline. Sometimes, many times, the ball just won’t…go…in.
There’s this common adage in European football: too good to go down. It’s a label normally given to teams filled with what everybody believes are first-rate players, who also happen to be flirting with relegation. It often means exactly what it says: a team is talented enough top-to-bottom that they’ll eventually dig themselves out of whatever mess they’re currently toiling in. They usually do just that.
But then there are the other sides this phrase refers to. The doomed sides. Think Villarreal in 2011-12, River Plate in 2010-11, or West Ham in 2002-03. Teams who, both in personnel and traditional stature, should never, ever face the drop, yet still reek of dread every time they take the pitch, until they eventually succumb to that awful fall. Valencia haven’t been relegated since 1986, and the last time before that was 1931. They’re a staple of Spanish soccer, and even today, boast a side of good, decorated footballers. Valencia are too good to go down, but I’ll be damned if they don’t also feel too cursed to stay up.