“Seven goals and a funeral” ran the headline of Spanish newspaper Marca after Barcelona defeated Valencia in the first leg of the Copa del Rey in February 2016.
“Ridiculous” was how Superdeporte described it, downright humiliating was how the rest of the world viewed it. Thrashed 7-0 , it was clear this was a club spiralling out of control and that Gary Neville was not the man to rescue them.
Fast forward 21 months and Valencia are second in La Liga and surprising everyone by proving to be Barcelona’s closest title rivals. The two sides meet on Sunday (19:45 GMT) – the acid test of Valencia’s unlikely title credentials.
Back in 2016, Neville was simply another unsuspecting coach on the conveyor belt of madness under the ownership of Singaporean Peter Lim. Neither Neville, his assistant Pako Ayestaran nor later Italian Cesare Prandelli could stabilise what many deemed to be a sinking ship with no future.
|The top of La Liga before this weekend’s games|
When Lim took control of Valencia in October 2014, he was looked upon as the potential saviour of a club that had suffered from mismanagement and was on the brink of a financial meltdown.
They had racked up €230m (£205m) in debt, owned two stadiums and were forced into selling their best players on a continuous basis just to survive.
Lim arrived with money to spend and an apparent desire to guide the club back to the kind of glory days they enjoyed when reaching consecutive Champions League finals at the turn of the century.
He looked to have started well, Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo – now at Wolves – securing a return to Europe’s premier club competition in his first season.
However, by November 2015, Nuno’s position had become untenable and he saw no option but to resign, initiating the arrival of a series of coaches that included Neville. By the time Prandelli joined in September 2016, eight coaches had come and gone since Unai Emery left in 2012.
Prandelli, too, would eventually leave but not before he made his anger known. Never had he witnessed a club in such disarray or a dressing room lacking in so much ambition and professionalism.
“Fuori!” he roared in Italian, motioning towards the door, effectively asking all those who did not sweat for the shirt to leave.
Prandelli’s emotional speech in December 2016 highlighted the depths Valencia had plunged to under Lim and his words left an indelible mark on the club. By the time he had gone, Valencia had hit rock bottom.
The club which boasted the fourth biggest budget in the league avoided relegation that season, finishing in 12th place, and changes started to be made.
Marcelino and his band of ‘rejects’
Anil Murthy was named president but it was the arrival of Mateu Alemany, the general director, and new coach Marcelino that made the biggest difference.
Alemany is the former president of Real Mallorca and highly respected. Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez had hoped Alemany would join him and form part of his board of directors at the Bernabeu but when Mallorca offered him the presidency, he stayed, helping the club to win the Copa del Rey in 2003.
Arriving at Valencia in March 2016, he immediately set about finding a worthy coach with the authority to guide the team forward. His name? Marcelino Garcia Toral.
Marcelino was an experienced coach who had worked with several Spanish sides. His previous job was with Villarreal, the club he guided back to the top flight, successfully leading them to three consecutive top-six finishes.
He was sacked in August 2016 and, after a brief flirtation with the top job at Inter Milan – he was rejected after being convinced he would take over at San Siro – was appointed Valencia boss in May 2017.
The Spanish side promised to honour Marcelino’s demands and his arrival changed everything as both he and Alemany worked on establishing the rules and changes required to return the club to glory.
With Lim’s trust, Marcelino changed the attitude of the club, something that could only be achieved with a transformation of the squad. Out went 14 players deemed incapable of adding value to the side and in came only those who were desperate to prove themselves. No player was purchased unless they had Marcelino’s seal of approval.
French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia and Colombian defender Jeison Murillo arrived from Inter, goalkeeper Norbeto Neto from Juventus, while Italian striker Simone Zaza had joined six months earlier , after Prandelli – the man who wanted him – left. So many of them, like Marcelino, were considered Serie A rejects.
Numerical supremacy, blood analysis and behaviour rules
And so, the rejects set to work. Along with bringing in players he promised he would return to the ‘top of their game’, Marcelino recruited his secret weapon, a nutritionist and a former player he met at Sporting Gijon, Jonathan Ondina.
Marcelino loves to play a quick and direct game centred around numerical supremacy and the idea of overwhelming the opponent based on the speed of their transitions. Exhausting stuff that is less exhausting when you are feeding your body the required nutrients.
Dining together often, the players are subjected to strict workouts while their blood is analysed and weight is checked frequently. According to Valencian papers, there are behavioural rules to abide by.
Marcelino demands that every player addresses each member of staff with the utmost respect, irrespective of what job they hold.
Yet despite all the rules and the severity of training, there exists a lot of love and respect within the group, creating a unit eager to surpass expectations.
It’s no wonder Valencia have achieved their best-ever start to a season, with 30 points after just 12 games and will go into Sunday’s match against Barcelona only four points behind in the table, aware that a win at the Mestalla would take them to within a point.
Zaza, a West Ham reject, is the league’s second top goalscorer after Lionel Messi. Portuguese winger Goncalo Guedes, on loan from PSG, has produced magical performances for Los Che, garnering attention from top European clubs, while Rodrigo Moreno, Kondogbia and Dani Parejo have also proved their worth.
Whether or not Valencia can sustain their momentum remains to be seen considering Lim’s recent past.
However, with no European football to distract them, Marcelino at the helm and a squad eager to show how wrong others were to doubt them, the sky is the limit for the reinvigorated giant of Spanish football.
Mina Rzouki hosts BBC radio 5 live’s weekly Euro Leagues Podcast. Listen to this week’s episode where she and a panel of European football experts look at Serie A’s thrilling title race.