Los Che’s Catalan test

It was the toughest possible start. Valencia kicked off their Primera Division campaign at home to Real Madrid, before a home date against a Deportivo La Coruna side desperate to make their mark back in the top flight. Now, they travel to Camp Nou to face Barcelona.

But so far, so good.

Mauricio Pellegrino’s men may only have two points on the board from as many games after letting a two-goal lead slip at Mestalla last weekend, but early signs are promising under their new Coach, with some fantastic football played in their first 180 minutes this term.

Pellegrino was realistic about his side’s aspirations as he took over from Unai Emery in the summer. There was no promise of a title tilt, of bringing down the top two or of winning a trophy. But there would be hard work and plenty of pride, he said.

Every single season, somebody at Valencia is asked whether the team can challenge at the very top. And every year one or two optimistic oblige with an affirmative answer, ‘Yes we can’. But, of course, they cannot. At the moment, only two teams are likely to win La Liga – and that won’t change any time soon.

Valencia’s fans are notoriously demanding, but they understand the current climate – they may have been the last team other than Real Madrid and Barcelona to claim the title – in 2002 and 2004 – but right now it is beyond their grasp.

Under Emery, Valencia consistently sold their best players to help reduce the club’s crippling debts, which even halted work on their new space-age stadium, Nou Mestalla. David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata have all departed in seasons gone by, but Valencia – to their credit – have continued to hit hard in the Primera Division.

Three third-placed finishes in a row under Emery are proof of progress on a shoestring, but the Basque-born Coach remained unpopular with fans due to the side’s showings in the very big games. At home, Valencia were able to compete with big teams on occasions – last season’s 2-2 draw with Barca being one example – but often they would completely capitulate – as in the 6-3 defeat at Mestalla to Madrid the previous campaign.

Emery’s reaction after that debacle was alarming. Visibly angered, the Coach appeared in the Press room late, having handed a dressing down to his players, and revealed his huge frustration. “When we play like that,” he said “I lose life.”

So, presumably, did the fans. And there was a feeling at the club that, although respected as a Coach, Emery had taken the team as far as he could. Sometimes, though, supporters don’t know what they have until it’s gone. Time will tell if that is the case with Unai, but the truth is that few fans lamented his summer exit.

Pellegrino knows what is expected, in any case. A popular defender at the Costa Blanca club in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he played under Rafa Benitez in Valencia’s last glorious era, between 2000 and 2004, before working as an assistant alongside the Spanish Coach at Liverpool in 2008-2010.

Stripped of their financial clout of years gone by, Valencia have to be more clever in the market these days, but a shrewd signing policy has seen the Mestalla outfit bring in a number of exciting players over the last two seasons, including Sergio Canales, Joao Pereira, Jonas and Roberto Soldado.

The latter has gone on to become a world-class striker at his hometown club and this summer turned down a big-money move to Tottenham. Valencia, he claims, remains an exciting place to be. Just how exciting, however, will become apparent in the coming weeks.

Perhaps even on Sunday as they travel to Camp Nou, a ground where they lost 5-1 in La Liga and 2-0 in the Copa del Rey last term. In the first of those matches, Lionel Messi scored four. And to make matters worse this time around, the Catalans will be seeking a response after losing the Supercopa de Espana to Real Madrid earlier this week. For Valencia, it’s perhaps the truest test of their early progress under Pellegrino.

Madrid, meanwhile, will hope to claim their first League win of the campaign at home to Granada, a side they thrashed 5-1 in last season’s corresponding fixture. And buoyed by their Supercopa success, expect something similar on Sunday.

Earlier on Sunday, Valladolid visit Athletic Bilbao in a fixture which pits the in-form promoted side, second place with six points, against Marcelo Bielsa’s blundering outfit, bottom of the table after back-to-back defeats in 2012-13. Both teams will be desperate to win that one – albeit for very different reasons.

And at midday in Madrid on Sunday, Rayo Vallecano (third, also with six points), will hope to continue their impressive start with a win at home to seventh-placed Sevilla, looking like challengers for a top-four spot in the current campaign.

There’s much to look forward to and, many will be pleased to hear, no 11pm kick-offs.