“I’d like to see a different Valencia, but you have two options in life: give up or fight,” said the Valencia coach Rubén Baraja, and so they were going to fight. They were also, it turned out, going to be the Valencia that he and everyone else wanted to see but no one thought possible, not any more. The Valencia that was, well, Valencia, the way they used to be, the way they’re supposed to be; the Valencia that Diego Simeone said were “much better than us”, 45,363 people standing to applaud when it was all over and Atlético Madrid had been defeated 3-0. “This is a day to be enjoyed, for how hard it is to win,” Baraja said.
They had enjoyed it all right, the noise rolling down the vertical sides of Mestalla. As for hard, he could say that again so he did. Atlético were unbeaten, the last time they had played they had scored seven and Valencia hadn’t beaten them in 17 games, going back to 2014. “We have to accept that they have a very high level,” Baraja had said. Others dared say that they were title contenders again. Valencia by contrast had just come off two defeats that saw familiar ghosts reappear and their president had dared say that their target was survival, that Spain’s fourth biggest club should aspire only to avoid relegation.
And yet here they were taking Atlético to pieces, a goal up inside five minutes, two up in half an hour, three up before the hour. “This was the worst we have played since I have been here,” Simeone insisted; asked if this was the best since he had been here, Baraja said “I hope there are many more”, and rightly so The answer was yes and by a long way, Valencia bombing through, quicker to ever ball, robbing and running relentlessly on their way to a victory that was as incontestable as it was unexpected.
Baraja’s players were “bullets that stung like wasps,” said AS, which would make them pretty pathetic bullets, but you knew what they meant, Hugo Duro scoring the first and second before Javi Guerra added a superb third, a gift for supporters and subeditors writers alike. Duro is hard, you see, and Atlético had been hit duro, one headline said; Guerra is war, and Valencia had gone to guerra, another ran. Valencia had “stripped Atlético naked”, El Pais said; Barajas boys, by contrast, were wearing “top hat and tails”, La Provincias claimed, which may be why none of their goals were headers.
No one anticipated this, and not just on Saturday. The Valencia that Baraja would like to see looks more like the one that he played for, between 2000 and 2010: the team that had come from two Champions League finals and won two leagues, the team that won the Copa del Rey, the Uefa Cup, too. But that Valencia has gone, he knows. The Valencia that followed it has too, and the one that followed that. The team that qualified for the Champions League, that won the cups is not this one. The club that never dropped below mid-table in 20 years, that finished in the top four 12 times, has now finished ninth, 13th, ninth and 16th over the last four years.
“We have to know our reality,” Baraja had said. The reality is the dismantling of the team that qualified for the Champions League and won the Copa del Rey in 2018-19. It is endless departures – Ferran Torres, Rodrigo Moreno, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Francois Coquelin and Dani Parejo in 2021, Gonçalo Guedes and Carlos Soler in 2022 – and instability. They are on their eighth managerial spell since Marcelino García Toral left, of the last 20 players they signed before this window only fifteen remain, and sixteen of those twenty came on loan. Last season they only avoided a first relegation in 35 years on the final day last season, and what has happened since suggests more of the same. When Baraja pointed out in the summer that he wanted signings, one local paper put his words on the cover with the words of his three predecessors: they were virtually identical.
Which is why the sporting director admitted “we’d like more depth in the squad”, and why president Layhoon Chan said that their target this season has to be first-division survival – because, startling though those words were and are, depressing though it is to think that it has come to this, Ruben Baraja asked her to.
“What we have talked about is being honest about the club’s situation,” Baraja explained before the Atlético Madrid game, Valencia’s first since the window closed. “The market means we have to analyse our situation and our objective, taking into account last year. We will be ambitious but it is important we know the reality, the moment in history we find ourselves in. With the economic difficulties and the limitations the club has, we have to set reasonable and realistic objectives to avoid frustration. We would like to live a different moment, but you can abandon [it], or put in what you have to put in to help the team grow.”
When the window closed, players had departed, including their four top scorers last season, albeit none of them had exactly being rattling them in: Samuel Lino and Justin Kluivert had six, Edison Cavani had five, and Samu Castillejo four. Yunus Musah left for AC Milan. And Toni Lato, the kid former coach Rino Gattusso tried to matchmake with his daughter, had gone too. Four had come to replace them: Pepelu joined from second division Levante, their city rivals; Sergi Canos joined from Brentford, having played five games there and eight on loan in Greece; Amallah had played nine league games in Belgium and seven on loan at relegated Valladolid; and Roman Yaremchuk came from Bruges. In total, they cost just over €5m.
On Saturday afternoon, one of those seaside photo boards with a hole where your head goes had been set up on Avenida Suecia outside Mestalla. Instead of it turning you into a cartoon character with a stripy bathing suit and knobbly knees or a muscleman carrying a lady along the shore, it put you between the president and the sporting director, shirt in hand and smiling, the presentation of the signing the club never actually made. “Help Layhoon sign,” the slogan said.
Of the16 players who faced Atlético, only three cost more than €1m – Thierry Correira, Mouctar Diakhaby and Pepelu – and only five cost anything at all. Seven are products of Paterna, the club’s academy. There’s a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old, three 21-year-olds, two 22-year-olds, three 23-year-olds. The average age of the starting XI was 23.1. Three more 19-year-olds, three 20-year-olds and two more 22-year-olds are in the first team squad. Run through the names and, the magnificently monickered Martín Téjon (Badger) apart, it can look like the squad been picked out of a Spanish phonebook or auto-generated by Championship Manager, unremarkable everymen everywhere: Vazquez, López, Pérez, González. Their starting striker scored one goal last season, a year ago now.
On Saturday, though, Hugo Duro scored twice, taking him to three already. “I’ve had a difficult time,” he admitted. A generous, committed striker, a feisty one too, the hint of a cult hero about him , he also insisted: “Just because we’re a young team, that doesn’t mean we don’t have the mentality or the responsibility.” Instead, they are Valencia’s salvation, necessity the mother of another invention, the oldest story in football, the kids given a chance when the team has no hope.
“We have to ‘bet on’ the young players; I’m going to give them the chance to grow,” Baraja said and, boy, have they. Five weeks into the season, Valencia have defeated Sevilla and Atlético and are on nine points. Which doesn’t mean that this performance proves or promises anything, still less that they will be pushing for higher places – this was Baraja’s point – but it does mean that, well, they have nine points. Survival is a step closer already, delivered by the same kids who delivered it last season. Without them, Valencia would already be down. Now it’s up to them to avoid being dragged back into it again.
In week 34 last year, Alberto Marí, 21 at the time, scored the 88th-minute winner against Celta. In week 35, Diego López, 21, scored the winner against Real Madrid. The week after, he scored in a draw with Espanyol and the week after that, the final day of the season he scored the equaliser against Betis. The rescue mission had begun with a belting 93rd-minute equaliser against Valladolid in week 31 from then 19-year-old Javi Guerra.
Born in nearby Gilet, population 3,600, with the floppy hair and flushed cheeks of the first-year university student he is, a hint of Kaka about him, Guerra drives a Skoda, and has a dad who played for Mestalla, Valencia’s B team. Getting his debut was, he said, “a chance that comes around once in a lifetime” and might have only come around at all because this was not the life his club wanted to live. He fought the way his manager told him to fight, refusing to settle for survival, the kid who had only ever scored one goal for Mestalla saving them against Valladolid, scoring against Sevilla and getting a glorious third against Atlético on the day when Valencia looked a little like Valencia again, the one Rubén Baraja used to know.
• This article was corrected on 18 September 2023. An earlier version said that Valencia won the Copa del Rey in 2013-14 instead of 2018-19, and that Gonçalo Guedes and Carlos Soler left in 2023 instead of 2022