Heart of Football

Heart of Football: Buoyant Los Che to ensure their run will not Peter out

When Peter Lim takes his seat in the presidential tribune of Valencia tonight, the Singaporean will experience moods and hopes and expectations he has not come close to in his turbulent 31/2 years as owner there.

Los Che, as the locals call their club in the Spanish Mediterranean port, are on their biggest high during the Lim regime. The team lie in wait for Lionel Messi and Co., ready to hustle Barcelona as no other club has done this season, to show the watching world that Valencia rather than the Madrid giants appear to be the main challengers to Barca.

The Catalans take Valencia's resurgence so seriously that their coach Ernesto Valverde left Messi on the bench for almost an hour during Wednesday's Champions League game against Juventus in Turin.

Valverde said there was no injury, but that Messi has played too many games. Barca need him fit and fresh for Valencia.

Lim cannot doubt what Messi can do - and does most games. On Friday, Messi received the European Golden Shoe as the continent's top scorer, and 24 hours later he signed a new contract with Barca to 2021. Its buy-out clause is €700 million (S$1.12 billion).

The magic of Messi is more than just scoring goals. He inspires, he creates, he is the catalyst for one of the greatest teams in history.

However, before Valencia lay down their challenge on the pitch tonight (tomorrow morning, Singapore time), there will be a sombre atmosphere in the full house of 55,000 spectators. Everyone knew that Juame Orti, the club's former, and foremost, president, was ill.

The team lie in wait for Lionel Messi and Co., ready to hustle Barcelona as no other club has done this season, to show the watching world that Valencia rather than the Madrid giants appear to be the main challengers to Barca.

Orti presided when Los Che, coached by Rafa Benitez, last won LaLiga, in 2002 and again in 2004. The club were at that time hiding a sinkhole of debt, and Orti was a people's president.

In 2004, he danced on the pitch wearing an orange wig thrown down from the stands. Tonight, the club had planned to leave orange wigs on the seats for supporters to wear in a get-well message to him.

There will be no revelry. Orti died of lung cancer on Friday, and before the kick-off there will be a moment of reflection.

After that, the grand old Mestalla (or more accurately the concrete bowl that has seen better days in almost a century of existence) will rock as Lim has never witnessed.

Until now, his tenure has been fraught. Coaches hired and fired in a frenzy, changes from the boardroom down, a self-made billionaire grappling from thousands of kilometres away to restore a club.

Remote control of clubs from afar is in vogue across Europe. Arab sheikhs pour oil money into Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Americans, Thais and Russians throw wealth at teams they hardly have time to watch.

Lim has taken on a historic club. He is not wealthy by chance, so he surely did due diligence and realised that much more than the Mestalla needs an upgrade.

The foundations for a new stadium have lain in mothballs for ages because football eats up resources first and foremost to get the team back up the league. Lim thought he knew a man to fix the team restructuring - Jorge Mendes.

But the ubiquitous Portuguese player agent has too many vested interests elsewhere.

Yes, Mendes offloaded some clients to Valencia. He also persuaded Lim that Nuno Espirito Santo, a former goalkeeper, should be head coach.

Nuno did not have the knowledge to manage at this level. He is now, incidentally having another go, with more success, reviving Wolverhampton Wanderers in the English Championship.

Mendes also has financial investment at Wolves, and more of the players on his client list have moved there.

Still, he and Lim share an interest in Cristiano Ronaldo. He remains the star Mendes client, but Lim's company Mint Media handles Ronaldo's image rights outside of Real Madrid.

It is too soon to think of Ronaldo winding down his time in Valencia. But what are friends and contacts for if not to dream?

Lim showed two seasons ago that he will act to back his judgment. He knows Gary Neville from a business relationship they struck up through Salford FC, and through hotel and property they jointly own.

So he gave Gary (and brother Phil) the opportunity to coach Valencia after Nuno. That bordered on disastrous. Neville is better in the TV studio telling everyone else how to run their teams, and it took nine games for his Valencia to win, and 16 for Lim to call time on the experiment.

Mind you, the coaching seat at the Mestalla also proved too hot for Cesare Prandelli, and he once coached Italy in a European Championship.

Lim just had to keep throwing the dice and hope to hire a coach to lift the whole enterprise. Marcelino Garcia Toral might be that coach.

Tough, fearless, relentless, Marcelino has so far done the opposite to the Nevilles. He told the club which players he wanted to keep, which should go, and who they should buy.

Pivotal to all that is Dani Parejo, the dynamic force in midfield. Parejo had wanted out after five years and more than 200 games for Valencia, disillusioned and depressed by being harassed in the streets by irate fans.

Marcelino persuaded him to stay, and persuaded every player that to stay in his team, they must all eat what he says, run the kilometres he demands, trim down their bodyweight to less than 9.5 per cent fat.

This manic coach cannot reverse the selling of talents from Valencia's Cantera academy that, over the years, produced talents such as David Silva, Isco, Jordi Alba, Gaizka Mendieta.

But what a relief it must be for Lim that Marcelino has started off winning nine and drawing three games in the league, while losing none.

Barca haven't lost either. Tonight is the test for both, which is why Valverde, a former Los Che coach, ordered Messi to rest and keep something in the tank for this game. stsports@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline 'Buoyant Los Che to ensure their run will not Peter out'. Print Edition | Subscribe