Football: Hunger games revive LaLiga title challengers Valencia

Valencia forward Santiago Mina celebrates a goal during the 2-0 LaLiga victory against Espanyol last Sunday. It was Valencia's eighth consecutive LaLiga win, a club record.
Valencia forward Santiago Mina celebrates a goal during the 2-0 LaLiga victory against Espanyol last Sunday. It was Valencia's eighth consecutive LaLiga win, a club record.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Strict diet regimen is part of the reason for unbeaten sequence as they pursue Barca

It is a football club that in the past had a roster of star names like Mario Kempes, Gaizka Mendieta and David Villa. But Valencia's team sheet this season is one bereft of any LaLiga's A-listers.

But the league table tells a different story. The team that finished 12th in the previous two seasons and which have been racked by internal turmoil have emerged as genuine title contenders this term.

Thanks to second-half goals from Geoffrey Kondogbia and Santiago Mina Lorenzo to beat Espanyol 2-0 on Sunday, Los Che set a club record of eight straight LaLiga wins and maintained their pursuit of leaders Barcelona.

It moves Marcelino Garcia Toral's men six points clear of defending champions Real Madrid in third and sets up a mouthwatering top of the table showdown at home to the Catalans, who have a four-point lead, on Sunday.

Marcelino was sent off against Espanyol and will miss the clash against Barcelona.

Marcelino's men are unbeaten in 12 games - nine wins and three draws - this campaign. Much-maligned striker Simone Zaza, infamous for his penalty miss against Germany at last year's European Championship, has nine league goals, second only to Lionel Messi.

The Guardian's Sid Lowe pointed out that the methods of Marcelino had revitalised the deflated team.

THE RIGHT STRATEGY

Players like Zaza, Kondogbia and (Goncalo) Guedes have been revived and this is the right way (to) rebuild their confidence.''

CHRISTIAN NICK, Valencia fan.

Players are expected to follow strict diets and any squad member with a body fat index over 9.5 will not be allowed to play the hard-pressing game the 52-year-old Spaniard advocates.

Lowe wrote: "A pioneer, even now when professional football is catching up with him (Marcelino), every detail controlled, tests conducted daily, weight pinned on notice boards at training grounds worldwide, he goes further.

"He is so strict that stories circulate of players starving themselves or starting the day in the sauna, scared of arriving a gram overweight."

The Mestalla Stadium has been a graveyard for coaches since Peter Lim took control of the club in 2014. The Singaporean billionaire hired and fired four full-time tacticians (Nuno Espirito Santo, Gary Neville, Pako Ayestaran and Cesare Prandelli), whose spells were sandwiched by three caretaker stints by former player Voro.

There were upheavals in leadership as well. Amadeo Salvo resigned as executive president in July 2015 and Chan Lay Hoon stepped down as club president earlier this year, replaced by former Singapore diplomat Anil Murthy.

Interview requests by The Straits Times with Marcelino and Murthy were turned down. But the results so far have delighted their fans.

Supporter Christian Nick, a Singaporean, said: "Players like Zaza, Kondogbia and (Goncalo) Guedes have been revived and this is the right way. Buying players of low value and rebuilding their confidence rather than overpaying for players like (Alvaro) Negredo."

Another fan, Brian Tanguma, from the United States, noted there was optimism about breaking the Madrid-Barcelona dominance.

He added: "Being second in the table shows they're challenging for the title."

A busy summer transfer window saw 16 players offloaded but the management consulted Marcelino and picked up players with points to prove.

Italian Zaza failed to score in eight games last season for West Ham United, midfielder Kondogbia was a flop at Inter Milan while Cuedes struggled to make an impact after a big-money move to Paris Saint-Germain in January.

All three have been revelations this season and played crucial roles in Valencia's rise up the standings.

The dramatic upturn in fortune has earned the club plaudits from influential Spanish sports daily Mundo Deportivo.

It wrote: "The good results on the summer transfer window operations, the revival experienced by other players such as (Dani) Parejo, Zaza or Rodrigo and the great progress from the youngsters such as (Carlos) Soler, (Toni) Lato or Nacho Vidal have turned the situation around completely."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Hunger games revive Valencia'. Print Edition | Subscribe