Mestalla welcomes back a favourite son
After years of domination by Barcelona and Real Madrid, Valencia’s relatively good start to the new La Liga season so far has been a breath of fresh air.
By Gabriel Tan
Long regarded as Spain's third-biggest team, Valencia's last league title came in 2004, in a season where they also claimed the UEFA Cup to complete a much-celebrated double.
Nowhere near as financially strong as Barca or Real, Valencia's mere ability to hold their own against La Liga's big two is a huge testament to the way the club go about their business.
Los Che's strength has primarily been their ability to uncover talented young prospects and turn them into outstanding players.
In the early 2000s, a mix of local and foreign talent, amongst them Pablo Aimar, Roberto Ayala, Gaizka Mendieta and Vicente, arrived at the Mestalla as relative unknowns, but departed as household names.
However, the problem with a club like Valencia is somewhere down the road, they inevitably have to part ways with their best players in order for the club's accounts to stay in the black; most famously, Lopez and Mendieta both left for Lazio in successive seasons for a combined fee of €83million - a huge sum now, but absolutely monumental a decade ago.
More recently, David Villa and David Silva left the club last summer for Barcelona and Manchester City respectively. Both had served Valencia well, but the club could not accommodate their growing ambitions.
And earlier this summer, Juan Mata became the latest to be cashed in - his sale to Chelsea netting Valencia a cool £23.5million.
Quite often in the past, fans have regularly turned on their former heroes - whom they believed had leapt at the first sign of greener pastures - whenever they return to their former stomping grounds. Sol Campbell, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and perhaps most famously, Luis Figo to name but a few.
Strangely and wonderfully though, the Valencia faithful seem to take a different approach when their ex-players return to the Mestalla. Perhaps they've just become so accustomed to seeing quality players leave that it does not hurt as badly. Or maybe people in Valencia are just not the kind to hold grudges.
Either way, the reception Villa received on his return last season was nothing short of phenomenal. A man who had bagged 129 goals in 212 games for his erstwhile club clearly deserved the standing ovation he received - yet how many other crowds would have done the same?
Following the departures of Villa and Silva, Mata stepped up to the plate last term, and was even handed the captain's armband on numerous occasions. A former Real Madrid academy graduate who wasn't given his chance at the Santiago Bernabeu, Mata arrived at Valencia with a point to prove, and left as an established player with a World Cup winner's medal in his bag.
Chelsea dangled the cash in the summer, and like so often in the past, the offer was too good for Valencia to refuse.
For Mata, moving to Stamford Bridge gives him a chance to challenge for silverware more regularly. In his four years at Valencia, Mata only won one trophy - the Copa del Rey in the 2007/08 season, although he did play a major role in that triumph, netting in both the semi-final and the final.
Nonetheless, the playmaker was keen to stress that Valencia were still a club he held in high regard.
"Valencia were a big club anyway," Mata told Chelsea's official website on the day he signed for the Blues. "But I have left to join a bigger club and it is all about the opportunity to win trophies and I have that here."
Poignantly enough, Mata is already set for a return to the Mestalla, just over a month since he completed his move to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea travel to play Valencia in the Champions League on September 23, and with Mata already established as a regular starter in Andre Villas-Boas' starting XI, chances are he will be lining up against his former team-mates.
Even Valencia coach Unai Emery jokingly admits that the club would have prevented Mata from playing against them had they known they would be drawn to play Chelsea, although on a more serious note, he also paid tribute to his former charge.
"Had we known it [that Valencia would be drawn against Chelsea], we would have put a clause in the contract, so he did not have to play against us," Emery said on UEFA.com back in September.
"It will be something special for our fans to see Juan playing at Mestalla in a different shirt. Everyone who has shared a dressing room with him has learned from him as he is a great footballer.
"I wish him all the luck in the world in his new adventure, except of course when he comes up against us."
Considering what's at stake, the Valencia players are likely to rough Mata up a fair bit, and understandably so. While he may have once gone to battle with them, he wears the crest of a different club now.
But one thing is for certain - Mata will receive a warm round of applause when he walks onto the Mestalla pitch again on Wednesday. And he would do well to acknowledge the Valencia fans in return.
The Los Che faithful have seen their fair share of favourite sons depart over the years, and three in the past two seasons. Villa has made his return, as will Mata on Wednesday.
Let's hope it's an occasion to remember for both the player and his admirers.
comments powered by Disqus