For most of the season, it looked like underdog Getafe (or, for a while, possibly Alavés) would join Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid in next year’s Champions League. Instead, the hottest team down the stretch, Valencia, ended up with the coveted UCL spot, as Getafe, Alavés and Sevilla limped to the finish line.
With the regular season in the books, we know the four Spanish teams in next year’s Champions League. We also know that it will be fifth-place Getafe, sixth-place Sevilla and seventh-place Espanyol representing Spain in the Europa League.
Valencia became the rare outfit that decided against a coaching change after a bad start to the season – and have their patience rewarded. Nobody is questioning that non-sacking now.
Manager Marcelino is now 2-for-2 qualifying for Europe’s top competition as Valencia’s boss. This team also finished fourth a year ago. Valencia finished ’17-18 with 73 points, a record of 22-7-9 and a goal differential of plus-27. It was dramatically worse by each of those measures this year, recording 61 points with a 15-16-7 record and goal differential of plus-16. We’ve previously covered the fact that Valencia won a very watered down race for fourth place.
Want further proof the Spanish league was weaker this season? Valencia’s 73-point output from a year ago would have put this team comfortably ahead of third-place RM (68) and right on the heels of runner-up Atlético (76) in the ’18-19 La Liga table.
How did Valencia get here?
The biggest factor in Valencia winning just 15 games this season was its brutal start. On Nov. 3, after 11 games in La Liga, the club had an abysmal record of 1-8-2.
Valencia then went an impressive 14-8-5 over its last 27. Dividing the season into two halves, Valencia were 4-11-4 (23 points) at “halftime” on Jan. 12 after 19 matches. From the win over Celta Vigo on Jan. 19 through the season finale victory over Valladolid last Saturday, this team went 11-5-2 (38 points). In other words, this team has been playing well for a long time. And we haven’t even mentioned the runs it made in the Europa League (advancing all the way to the semifinals) and the Copa del Rey (it will meet Barcelona in the final on Saturday at 3 p.m. Eastern at Estadio Benito Villamarín in Seville).
What made the difference?
As this team won just one of its first 11, the goal differential at that point (seven scored to nine allowed) was minus-2. It was an indication they had a chance to get on track if they could find their scoring touch. Allowing nine goals in 11 games was not the issue; the problem was the inability to score. By season’s end, Valencia’s offense had improved substantially — they finished with 51 goals, seventh-most in the league.
More importantly, they remained solid defensively, allowing just 35 goals on the year, less than one per game. Only perennially stingy Atlético (29) gave up fewer in the league. Brazilian keeper Neto earned 10 clean sheets in 34 appearances. The last two seasons, Valencia has given up 36.5 goals per year, meaning Los Rojiblancos are no longer the only Spanish team that is hard to crack. Barcelona are by no means a sieve, but the first thing that comes to mind with the Catalans is not their back line.
Head-to-head against the big three
Let’s talk about the six games (home and away against Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid) that should tell us the most about whether they can hang with Europe’s elite next season. In those matches, Valencia tallied 1 win (vs. RM), three draws (two vs. Barça, one vs. Atleti) and two losses (vs. Atlético and RM). The combined score of those matches: 8 goals scored to 10 allowed. That was a long way of saying they played La Liga’s heavy hitters close.
Ready for the limelight in Europe?
We caught a brief glimpse of this team in the Champions League last fall. Playing in Group H with Juventus, Man United and Swiss side Young Boys, Valencia earned eight points in six games, going 2-2-2 to finish third and bow out. Have I mentioned Valencia were not playing their best soccer at that point?
As for the Europa League, they advanced to the semis after beating Scottish Premiership club Celtic in the round of 32. They then knocked off Russian Premier League side Krasnodar in the round of 16 before taking down familiar foe Villarreal, which finished 14th in La Liga, in the quarters.
Players to watch
This team’s top player statistically is 30-year-old midfielder Dani Parejo, who led the squad in both goals (9) and assists (7) this year. Valencia’s roster lacks the big names that the top clubs in Spain and Europe boast, but it’s a balanced group. Nobody finished the season with double-digit goals in La Liga, but five players scored at least five times, and six players had at least three assists.
Check out High Press Soccer later this week to find out what to watch for in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final vs. Barcelona.