The season is still young, but one of the most surprising sights of the new European football campaign is once-mighty Valencia sitting rock bottom of La Liga with zero points from three games.
And when you also take into account the less-than-mighty stature of Los Che’s opponents – Las Palmas, Eibar and Real Betis – their predicament looks even worse.
This week, reports have predictably been claiming manager Pako Ayestaran has one more chance to rescue his job: if Valencia lose at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, which would hardly count as a surprise, he could be fired.
Ayestaran has only been in the job for less than six months, succeeding Gary Neville at the end of March, initially as caretaker and then on a permanent basis. Despite enjoying an initial uplift in results when Neville departed, Ayestaran has never looked particularly comfortable or convincing in his role, and perhaps the writing was on the wall at the end of last season when Valencia finished a tumultuous campaign on a fitting note with three consecutive defeats.
He is the Mestalla’s seventh coach in just four years, with the stability of Unai Emery’s four seasons in charge making way for a revolving door approach which has only succeeded in taking Spain’s third-most supported club backwards.
Valencia lost final 3 games last season, now first 3 games of new campaign. Peter Lim's 'saving' of club not going well.— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) September 11, 2016
At the same time there has been similar turbulence in the playing squad, and the summer departure of stars like Paco Alcacer, Andre Gomes and Shkodran Mustafi was just the continuation of Valencia’s long-standing inability to keep hold of their players.
It’s blindingly obvious that instability has been the chief cause of Valencia’s ongoing plummet, and the man chiefly responsible for failing to steady the ship is club owner Peter Lim.
The Singaporean businessman was hailed a hero when he arrived nearly two years ago, happily going along with the notion that he was a knight in shining armour, riding in to rescue the club from the perils of poverty and spark a new era of glory.
But since those optimistic early beginnings Lim has done pretty much everything wrong; starting by allowing pernicious uber-agent Jorge Mendes to effectively become the club’s director of football, enriching himself at the club’s expense by buying and selling players in his stable with wanton abandon.
Lim belatedly realised that an agent, especially one like Mendes, is not the best person to run a football club’s recruitment policy, and distanced himself from Mendes by sacking unpopular manager Nuno, who had been appointed at the agent’s recommendation.
But Lim’s next major error was appointing an enormously experimental replacement in the form of Neville, whose disastrous 28-game reign was hardly surprising considering his inability to communicate with his players due to the obvious language barrier.
Perhaps Lim’s biggest error, though, has been his failure to show Valencia fans that he cares. He almost never attends games, preferring instead to demonstrate far more public commitment to Salford City, a non-league team he owns in England, and neither does he bother to explain himself in the local media.
What on earth are Peter Lim’s intentions with Valencia? That question is being asked with increasing regularity by the club’s bewildered fans. So far, there have been no answers, and until the absent owner starts taking responsibility for the mess he has helped to create, the only way is down.
And so the first Barcelona crisis of the season begins. A 1-2 defeat at the hands of Alaves (of all teams) at Camp Nou (of all places) sent shockwaves around La Liga. Typically, with Barcelona involved, a few more knees than usual are knocking.
But, we’ve been here before. A 4-1 hammering by Celta Vigo in September last season, followed by a 2-1 defeat by Sevilla early in October, had the knives out with the campaign barely woken from its slumber. Barca responded by going unbeaten in La Liga until April the next year. Luis Enrique issued calm then, and he’s doing the same now. And though he may have got it wrong on Saturday evening, he’s well worth listening to.
It was a case of perhaps too much, too soon from Barcelona. Much has been made of their added squad depth this season and while it can be a positive, it’s also a sword of your own to fall upon if too much change is administered, especially so early in the season with players still adapting.
Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto were all left out following a hectic International break. And indeed it was in defence where Barca looked particularly at odds. Aleix Vidal is still growing into his Barca shirt while Javier Mascherano was uncharacteristically out of sorts. The stability Pique offers to him is perhaps an underrated quantity. Jeremy Mathieu is anything but, at times resembling an octopus looking for a lost tentacle while blinded by its own ink.
There was no Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta too, adding further fuel to the fire in Alaves’ bellies. The trio were later thrown on to no avail, as Barca’s attack fell flat on its face just as the defence did. Neymar had barely trained with the team since his summer return, and it was just another cause that had an effect on the night. It was indeed, just one of those nights. Barca fans can take solace in the fact that there won’t be many such nights across the course of the season.
Luis Enrique: "It was difficult for us and it's an unsightly result against opponents we have to congratulate" pic.twitter.com/88yLRTbUD8— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) September 10, 2016
“The second [Alaves] goal, after another error by us, hit the group hard and did a lot of damage because it was a demonstration of our defensive fragility.” stated Luis Enrique after the game, identifying his backline as the main problem on the night. Heavy rotation ultimately lead to confusion and Alaves pounced in impeccable fashion.
At Camp Nou you don’t get many chances with Barca very much in the ascendancy, but without their key components even the Catalan giants can have an off night. Alaves perhaps saw the teamsheet and fancied themselves.
And this is not to belittle the performance of Alaves either. They came prepared and not only created chances, but took them too. On the inevitable back foot they were organised and maintained their composure. There were no rash tackles or loss of shape. They stayed calm, and got an early reward in their first La Liga campaign in 10 years. It was their night and one they will rightly savour for some time.
Elsewhere this weekend, Sevilla fans’ nails may already be past the cuticles and their hair ripped from their scalp, despite it being only the third game of the season. A dramatic ending to a game against a Las Palmas side who had pummelled them for the first 45 minutes, saw Jorge Sampaoli’s men produce some escape effort.
A penalty that never was and a 94th minute winner that perhaps never was too secured a 2-1 win. It was cruel on Las Palmas but well football is, you know…cruel.
Meanwhile, If Barca’s own crises are fleeting, Valencia’s must surely be permanent and part of the club badge by now. Only they could rescue a game from the depths, only to then find time to throw it away all over again. Trailing 2-0 they brought it back to 2-2 via a brilliant cameo from new boy Munir.
But then Real Betis have Ruben Castro. And when you have Ruben Castro you score goals. He did just that with the last kick of the game, securing a 2-3 win to further the 35-year-old striker’s legend at the club.
Following their historic promotion to La Liga, Club Deportivo Leganes have on Tuesday entered a partnership with MBUZZ, a Saudi Arabia-based technology, media and telecoms group.
The tie-up will include a range of marketing and content collaboration initiatives. The partnership was officially revealed at an event held in Dubai.
With millions tuning into the Spanish top flight every week, securing an international partner, specifically from the Middle East region, will enable Leganes to bond more closely with the 25 million passionate La Liga fans watching live matches broadcast across the MENA region weekly.
MBUZZ aim to encourage GCC fans’ interest in La Liga and the Premier League while building a strong infrastructure with Leganes to help develop football in Saudi and across the GCC.
The team will wear the branding of MBUZZ or its selected partners on the front of its shirt each week.
The only other Middle East companies to currently adorn the front of shirt position of La Liga teams are Emirates Airlines (Real Madrid sponsor) and Qatar Airways (FC Barcelona sponsor).
Leganes Vice President, Felipe Moreno expressed his excitement over the collaboration.
“This key partnership has been struck at a very exciting moment in the club’s history. In MBUZZ GROUP, we have a international partner that will naturally be well-equipped to support us, not least because we share so much in terms of our vision to grow in strength and achieve greatness.
“We both seek the highest levels of performance in all that we do and we look forward to developing our partnership throughout this exciting season.”
Youssef Abdellaoui, MBUZZ Group CEO said, “As they commence their first season in La Liga, Leganes is on a historical journey and we are proud to embark on this journey with them. We don’t want to simply “sponsor” Leganes, we want to “partner” with them as together we believe we share similar values and a strong vision.
“With Leganes, we communicate our dreams, team spirit, determination to succeed and finally victory, values that are also carried by our brand and the clients we are proud to serve.”