25th October 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
After years of financial uncertainty, managerial turmoil and two successive twelfth-placed finishes in La Liga, Valencia are back.
Under the auspices of former Villarreal coach Marcelino, the sleeping giant of a club is awakening, rising to second in the Spanish top flight, behind only Barcelona, and thrilling with their unique brand of highly-organised, finely-tuned, yet free-scoring brand of attacking football.
Marcelino’s strict, regimented approach is exactly what Los Che needed, after complacency had set in among the squad amid six changes of manager in less than two years. The 52-year-old from Asturias has reintroduced discipline, structure and work ethic, while a whopping 16 members of last season’s squad were deemed “expendable” and shipped out.
West Ham United flop Simone Zaza has grabbed many of the headlines during Valencia’s rise from the ashes, and deservedly so with eight goals to his name in nine La Liga appearances in 2017/18 – only Lionel Messi (11) boasts a better return. And captain Dani Parejo, young midfielder – and reported Manchester United target – Carlos Soler, and on-loan midfield general Geoffrey Kondogbia have all impressed for Marcelino’s side this term.
However, there is one man truly stealing the show at the Mestalla: 20-year-old Portuguese winger Gonçalo Guedes.
Neymar’s world-record-shattering €222million move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain this summer sent shockwaves around the football world, its impacts inflating an already grossly inflated transfer market and causing knock-on effects that numerous players, managers and, in some cases, entire clubs had to deal with.
There is of course the case of Edinson Cavani having to share the Parc des Princes set-piece duties with the Brazilian, having only just recently wrestled them from Zlatan Ibrahimović; Barcelona were tasked with finding an heir to Neymar while every selling club on Earth knew their coffers were stuffed to bursting from the former Santos star’s enforced sale; and PSG coach Unai Emery had to devise a tactical plan that accounted for not only Neymar and Cavani fitting into the same side, but Kylian Mbappé too.
All of this meant the smaller ripples of the Neymar deal were somewhat under-reported, the headlines reserved for the major, and at times expensive, fallout. But there were players at PSG who’s place in the squad became uncertain the second the brilliant Brazilian was signed, such as Lucas Moura – coincidentally Neymar’s best friend – Julian Draxler and Guedes.
Guedes had only been signed in the January transfer window of the previous campaign, picked up from Benfica for €30million as PSG aimed to scoop up one of the continent’s hottest prospects and develop him into an international superstar, rather than forking out multiple times that fee for a ready-made alternative – how quickly plans can change.
But Project Guedes was put on hold after Neymar signed – PSG simply had too many options for the attacking midfield positons; something had to give, and the youngster was sent on loan to Valencia for 2017/18.
The fans in Paris never really got to know the three-cap Portugal international, who’d only turned out eight times for the Ligue 1 runners-up before being sent to Spain – amounting to just 426 minutes of action – and therefore they didn’t mourn his exit. But their loss has certainly been Valencia’s gain; ask any Mestalla regular about the young attacker’s gifts and they’ll wax lyrical.
In seven appearances for Los Che – only five of which as a starter – Guedes has scored three goals and registered five assists. Versatile, intelligent, dynamic and skillful, the 20-year-old looks a born star in the Spanish top flight, despite the fact that his La Liga stay is almost certain to last only one season, with PSG, you have to believe, still viewing him as part of their future plans.
But Valencia must cherish Guedes while they have him. His flair, commitment and productivity will be a huge boon to their top-four hopes this season.
With six wins and three draws from their nine La Liga games to date, Valencia remain one of the divisions three remaining unbeaten sides. They have already gone to the Bernabéu and earned a 2-2 draw with champions Real Madrid – although Guedes had not been signed at that point – and taken on perennial contenders Atlético Madrid, in Guedes’ debut, and come away with honours even.
Yet arguably their most crucial fixture to date was last weekend’s clash with Sevilla at the Mestalla. Realistically, it was a battle between the two major contenders for the final Champions League qualification spot this season, with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético expected to eventually assume the top three positions, as has become customary in recent years.
And Guedes blew Sevilla away. His stunning strike into the top corner from outside the penalty area will be remembered as one of La Liga’s best this season, while he also assisted Santi Mina in the final stages and secured his brace in stoppage time, meaning he was directly involved in three of Valencia’s four goals in the 4-0 win.
More than simply his goals contribution, though, it was Guedes’ industry and inventiveness that stood out, constantly linking with those around him and showing a fearlessness that belied his 20 years by always being a willing recipient of the ball and active in his attacking efforts throughout.
Spanish sports daily AS wrote after the game that “Gonçalo Guedes left Paris to fall in love with the Mestalla.” And the feeling is certainly mutual. The reporter also suggested that, after Zaza was named Player of the Month for September, Guedes is deserving of the award for October.
Valencia have now won five league matches in a row. Coincidentally, that run stretches to the point at which Guedes made his first start for the club, and he has featured in all but seven minutes of those victories.
Marcelino’s side face three very winnable fixtures next, against Alavés, Leganés and Espanyol, before then hosting league leaders Barcelona at the Mestalla. By that point they will expect to have stretched their winning streak to eight games, and Barça will need to be just a little wary of the threat Los Che’s new superstar attacker poses as Valencia will be of Messi.
He won’t be around for a long time, but Guedes is bringing the good times back to Valencia this season.