La Liga dark horses: Can Valencia go all the way?
What would sport be without unpredictability? Leicester City's Premier League victory in 2016 is arguably one of the greatest moments in English football in the current decade and is a testament to the excitement a dark horse can bring to the sport. In the recent past, La Liga have had their own dark horses in Atletico Madrid, who have since gone on to establish themselves as serious contenders, both in the domestic league and in Europe.
Historically, Valencia are no strangers to the Liga title, having won it a total of 6 times. Their previous successful league campaign was in 2004 under Rafa Benitez, who led them to 2 league titles in the space of 3 years. The club have, on occasions, put on some impressive displays since then, but have never staked a genuine claim for the league title.
All that may be about to change. With 27 points out of a possible 33, Valencia is one of only two teams that have remained unbeaten in the league so far. It is not only the results, however, but also the means by which Valencia have achieved those results that amount to what might be the rise of another unprecedented dark horse in the La Liga.
The Valencia of 2009 had an imposing team, boasting the likes of David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata among others. The club found it impossible to keep their biggest talents at bay, with talented players Isco, Jordi Alba and Juan Bernat also leaving the club for greener pastures.
The high profile departures is a sword eternally hanging over Valencia's head, with Real Madrid reportedly willing to sign the impressive Goncalo Guedes next season. If they are to have any chance of winning silverware in the near future, Los Che must find a way, financial or otherwise, to keep their prodigious talents at the club for the long haul.
Valencia have registered 8 victories this season, and show no signs of slowing down. Under the tutelage of recently appointed manager Marcelino, they have enjoyed their best start to the season in over a decade. Questions still remain over their ability to sustain their current form and compete with the big boys in the league, but Valencia have done themselves no harm by starting their league campaign in imperious fashion.
A key reason for their resurrection is their intimidating arsenal up front. Simone Zaza and Rodrigo Moreno have terrorised some of the best defences in the league, with the former showing signs of finally reaching his true potential. Feeding off Portuguese starlet Goncalo Guedes, Dani Parejo and youngster Carlos Soler, the two forwards have scored the bulk of Valencia's goals this season. Guedes has been particularly impressive, creating several chances and bagging a few goals himself.
Defensively, Valencia have been at extreme ends of the spectrum. Excellent defensive performances such as the one against Atletico Madrid in a goalless draw bear a stark contrast to the 9 goal thriller against Real Betis, in which 3 goals were conceded. While their formidable front line bailed them out on that occasion, it would be unwise for the team to depend entirely on Zaza and Moreno on a regular basis.
At home, Valencia have been imperious, scoring 13 and conceding only 2 goals in 6 matches so far this season. Ardent fans of the club must be feeling a sense of deja vu, recalling a time in the past when the Mestalla was a fortress and a genuinely distressing fixture for both Barcelona and Real Madrid. It is important to note that the average age of the Valencia side is 25, with youngsters like Goncalo Guedes, Carlos Soler and Martin Montoya filling the ranks. If the club can hold on to players of this stature, the future certainly looks bright.
In a league so heavily dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, the safe bet is to brand the competition a two-horse race. Valencia, however, have proved more than just a match for the better clubs of the league, with different players stepping up in every game to secure points for them.
It is far too early in the season to consider Valencia serious challengers to the Liga crown, but they can take heart from the fact that Atletico Madrid found themselves in a similar position in the early stages of the 2013-14 season, and went on to scrape past Barcelona to win the league.
A fixture at home against unbeaten league leaders Barcelona in a couple of weeks is arguably Valencia's most difficult tie of the season. A favourable result for Valencia will serve as a massive boost to the morale of the team and put forth genuine title challenge from a side that has failed to meet expectations in the past few seasons. Everyone loves an underdog, and like Atletico Madrid 4 years ago, Valencia have the opportunity to herald a new era for the club and its fans. It is, indeed, now or never for Los Che.