Neither Atlético nor Real Madrid could afford to lose Saturday’s derby at the Wanda Metropolitano. And yet they both ended up as losers. A goalless draw left both sides ten points behind league leaders Barcelona, and the Spanish sports press declared the Catalan side winners of the Madrid derby.
There are suggestions that such a large gap opening up between Barcelona and the two Madrid sides leaves Barça as the only horse left in this season’s title race. They may be ten points ahead of the other two teams who were considered title challengers at the start of the season, but they are in fact only four points clear at the top. For there is another.
Valencia were given no chance of challenging at the top end of the table before the season began. A top-half finish with a push for a Europa League spot would have been considered an excellent return. With nearly a third of the season gone, they find themselves second in the league, unbeaten on 30 points.
While they are rightly being lauded for their spectacular run of form, which has seen them win a club record eight games in a row, there stills seems to be a suspicion among the press and public that they will fall away as the season wears on.
Valencia manager Marcelino and his staff are happy enough to continue flying under the radar. After Sunday’s record-breaking 2-0 away win over Espanyol, assistant manager Rubén Uría said that “it would be an error to think we are now candidates for the title”.
It’s in their interests to keep expectations low, to try and keep the players and fans from getting carried away, and for their opponents to continue to underestimate them.
Whether Los Che can convert their excellent start to the season into a sustained title challenge depends on a number of factors; whether key players can stay fit, whether they can keep up their in-game intensity, and how they respond to a setback.
If they are in need of a blueprint for success, they can look to Atlético Madrid’s surprise title-winning side of 2013-14. At the same stage of the season four years ago, Atleti were in more or less the same situation as Valencia are now. Their start to that campaign had been surprisingly excellent, and was only overshadowed by an even better start from Barcelona.
Barcelona appeared to be red-hot favourites, but Atlético’s consistency kept them within touching distance of the Catalans. When Barça fell to three defeats in February and March, Atlético were there to take advantage, and eventually deposed them from top spot. Despite a late-season wobble, Atleti held on to stumble over the line as champions.
There are many similarities between Diego Simeone’s vintage Atlético side and Marcelino’s Valencia of today. Both sides are disciplined, energetic, direct and extremely effective counter-attackers, and opponents struggle to cope with their styles of play.
Marcelino, just like Simeone before him, has a focused and unified squad that is greater than the sum of its parts. He demands total commitment from his players, and he has built a squad of disciples who completely buy into his system and methods. Gabriel Paulista, for example, worked with Marcelino at Villarreal, and didn’t hesitate when his former manager offered him the chance to join his Valencia revolution.
Players such as Santi Mina, Rodrigo and Dani Parejo, who all seemed to be on the way out, have been transformed under Marcelino, seemingly thriving on the responsibility given to them by their new coach.
It seems that Marcelino is emulating Simeone by helping his team punch above its weight through sheer force of personality.
Whether or not they can keep it up remains to be seen, but we may find out sooner rather than later. Their next opponents are Barcelona, who will make the trip to Mestalla on Saturday night.
A victory could be the launching pad for a sustained title charge, and a defeat could take the wind out of their sails altogether. This is all at once the biggest challenge and greatest opportunity of Valencia’s season so far. If Marcelino’s side pass this test, their credentials as genuine title contenders will surely no longer be in doubt.