It is quite possible that Valencia can mount a stealth attack on both the La Liga and Champions League titles.

IT WAS quite amusing, not for Chelsea fans naturally, to hear that there was at least one Premiership manager entertaining the thrilling idea of undermining the Blues' Champions League campaign. Rafael Benitez, apparently, is actively pursuing that agenda by passing on invaluable information on Jose Mourinho's team – which his Liverpool have forcefully humbled in the past two seasons in Europe – to his old club Valencia.

It is an act that would exacerbate the rocky relationship between the Spaniard and Portuguese managers in the Premiership. Mourinho has not hid his aversion towards Benitez. But regardless of the Liverpool boss' goodwill gesture, there was already an overwhelming consensus that Chelsea were on their way out of the Champions League as soon as the draw for the quarterfinals was made last Friday.

Mourinho has hoisted an early excuse for any eventual fumble, citing – quite justifiably – his team's overflowing fixture list which demand that the Blues play four games in 17 days before the first leg against Valencia at Stamford Bridge.

Los Ches have a relatively simple schedule – two league matches against Racing Santander tomorrow and Espanyol on April 1 – and still possess a chance of upstaging Barcelona and Sevilla for the La Liga championship. Three points separate Valencia from Barca and Sevilla, both on 50 points, and coach Quique Sanchez Flores has made sure that the credentials and form of Spain's only flag bearers in Europe's leading club competition are adequate to dim the confidence of even the most positive Chelsea supporters. Knitting intrigue into their season is Valencia's quest to find closure to their magnificent but highly unrewarding surge into the Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001 under the guidance of the brilliant but unyielding Hector Cuper.

Only Juventus have had the identical misfortune of losing two Finals in a row (1997 and 1998) but at least Italy 's most decorated club had won the trophy in 1996 during their heyday in the second half of last decade. At the height of their powers in the La Liga at the turn of the Millennium, Los Ches secured their fifth and sixth titles under Benitez (2001/02 and 2003/04) and completed the La Liga and UEFA Cup double in the same month Mourinho led FC Porto to their Champions League and league titles three years ago.

Long established as the third biggest club in Spain, the feeling of missing out on the European Cup twice in a row is still raw amongst the Valencia support base and this season's run is being tagged as their conquest of destiny. Flores, a former player of the club, has weaved together a team made up of the nucleus of the side that threatened to mow down the continent's heavy hitters a few years ago and players who have had better days elsewhere.

This cocktail of having to prove themselves and also the chase for one final European hurrah has kept the Valencia pot on the boil. Flores has also constructed a squad that are stepping away from Benitez's shadow. The Liverpool supremo has left a large imprint on his ex-club and it would have taken a manager of equal stature to ensure that Valencia continued to remain on course for major honours. Claudio Ranieri – Benitez's stalwart predecessor – failed to grasp the level upon which Valencia have been operating under Benitez and failed to gain the respect of his charges.

An alleged exchange between Ranieri and then Valencia defender Amadeo Carboni as recalled in Guillem Blague's highly engaging and revealing A Season on the Brink: A Portrait of Rafael Benitez's Liverpool underlined Benitez's meticulous approach to football at his former club. It also aptly summed up the Italian's sorry second stint at Estadio Mestalla. Carboni – now famously the club's sporting director busily provoking Mourinho – had asked Ranieri on the “best way to defend.” Ranieri answered: “Just like you did last year.” To which the puzzled player responded: “But we had five ways of defending last year, depending on the opponent(s) and the situation.” Ranieri's solution was: “Just use whichever one you feel like, then.”

Flores has designed an abridged version of the Cuper and Benitez models of Valencia to come up with this vintage: Los Ches can juggle both an all-out attacking play and disciplined rearguard action. Chelsea would soon discover which Valencia would turn up at Stamford Bridge and the Mestalla – a definite disadvantage for the Blues based on Valencia's record against Premiership clubs.

Under Benitez, they had defeated Arsenal twice (2001 and 2003) and Liverpool (2003), and it was their marvellous home-and-away wins over the Reds that finally convinced the Liverpool hierarchy to engage the service of the Spaniard.

There would not be a shortage of offers for Flores himself if he leads Valencia to complete their missions at home and in Europe and there is a clear-cut fear that this would tear this team apart. Chelsea are seemingly keen on snapping up fullback Miguel to replace the unimpressive Paulo Ferreira while the interest in goal-poacher David Villa has been nurtured far longer. Valencia weathered the departure of Benitez in 2004, avoided a debilitating exodus and aspired to their original place in the La Liga after almost two seasons.

This is the conundrum for Los Ches: Can they pay the price of success, if it is extorted, and survive another break-up?
  • Image
  • Image
  • Image
  • Image
  • Image
    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment