“Do we want revenge for the 5-2 defeat at Mestalla? We will try to do things right and get the three points, that is most important.” Dani Parejo knows there are bigger than issues than revenge on the agenda this weekend for his Valencia team – and rightly so because the game against Real Sociedad promises to serve up a platter of emotions.
It’s fourth versus fifth and on the line will be that coveted final Champions League spot. La Real – thirsty for a European football return with a young, exciting but well schooled squad. Then there is Valencia just behind them, in unchartered territory, away from what had become a customary third place, as a tormented season on and off the field has dragged. Throw in the financial implications, talent on display and on-field isolated battles – it becomes ever more tasty.
History too, plays a part – La Real have won three successive League games against Valencia, but, the boys from Mestalla have won three of their last four trips to the Anoeta in La Liga – only losing on their last trip. The balance continues.
European football for Real Sociedad would bring to an end a drought since 2004-05, when they were present in the Champions League group stages. Since then, the club has been to Segunda and back, before finally finding stability under the guidance of owner Jokin Aperribay. He entrusted in the cantera, young players, and financial common sense – finally he could get a return from this youthful, charismatic squad led by Philippe Montanier. A man the club considered sacking but kept faith with to give the youngsters and the club in general continuity. Champions League, failing that even European league, would be a great reward for a club going about their business not only off the field but on it too.
Montanier has weathered the storm of last season to give La Real a fresh outlook on their football – disciplined, organised and energetic off the ball while devastating on the counter and with their general associative play. Surrounding cantera veteran Xabi Prieto is a mix of next generation prospects from the same fields of Zubieta as him, the likes of Inigo Martinez, Asier Illarramendi and Antoine Griezmann have shown they’re not only the future but the present too. It’s been difficult for Montanier at times but he now has the right mix, and a run of one defeat in 22 League games is by no means a fraudulent statistic – Real have been magnificent at times. Now they need to find the focus in these young eyes to see it through until the end.
For Valencia, meanwhile, nothing is ever easy. At Mestalla, a spanner is permanently spinning in the works. They may argue that this game, and the promise of Champions League football, means more to them. Not because of their attitude on the field but the implications off it. Financial uncertainty reigns supreme and the pressure put upon the players to constantly achieve qualification to the elite competition can even be a burden. Each year the squad decreases in quality but the targets remain the same, thus creating an aura and atmosphere at the club of great expectation in the most unhealthy of environments. Ernesto Valverde has done magnificently to alleviate this pressure, this feeling, but even he has had his moments and become beaten down.
Still, Valencia arrives at Anoeta with just the single defeat in 12 games and will be confident in the face of La Real’s own impressive record. Ironically that defeat came in this very same territory of the Basque country, the hope will be that the long trip to the north of Spain is a lot more pleasant this time. Much will be down to the class and quality Valencia still possesses – their futures may be in doubt but for now they have a job to do, to maintain the club’s status in Spain and on a wider scale of course Europe. Ever Banega, so spectacular at Malaga this week, will need to overcome Illarramendi in the central midfield area. Roberto Soldado meanwhile, escaping suspension and will be present in Anoeta, will need to force his way past the muscle of Martinez in La Real’s defence. The Spanish striker has scored four goals against the Basques since joining Valencia, but all have come at Mestalla – now would be a good time to give that record more dimension.
The mix threatens to produce an explosive encounter between two teams with different chemistry, but striving towards the same conclusion.