IT WAS one of those nights that explained why the UEFA Champions League can be so marvellously captivating. Valencia hosted Chelsea amid the soaring shabby chic splendour of the Mestalla stadium, 43,000 spectators perched on the precipice, bathed in the glow of floodlights sitting behind them, illuminating the orange, red and green cauldron below. No wonder they call it one of the most scary stadiums in Europe. It is surely the steepest, an arena best suited to Sherpas and mountain dwelling creatures!
Chelsea had already given their superbly balanced group the game of a lifetime in their 4-4 draw with Ajax in London. This encounter wasn’t quite as technical or brimming with excellence, but it was dramatic, intriguing and certainly kept the crowd on the edge of their sky-high seats.
While the Mestalla may have seen better days, hence the plan for a new modern home, you can understand why some of the Valencia faithful might not want to leave this iconic venue. It must give them a competitive advantage, for you can only imagine how passionate and hostile it could be with Valencia facing Real Madrid or Barcelona. Or maybe local rivals Villareal.
Chelsea fans took advantage of the November sunshine and opted to commandeer the Irish bars in town. The police were also out in force in typical fashion, but there was no evidence of anything other than cerveza-infused high spirits. Certainly there was little sign of Valencia’s fans in the build-up to the game.
There was also little obvious evidence of the economic crisis that brought the country to its knees a decade ago. Valencia now looks a fairly prosperous city on first glance with a relaxed air about it and a taste for spectacular modern architecture. The weather is glorious, the oranges that provide the world’s marmalade lovers with fruit glisten in the sun and Iberico ham hangs from the ceilings of countless shops, bars and restaurants.
The football club does betray that image a little in that there’s a stadium across town that has been half-built since the crisis, abandoned because of financial problems. The Nou Mestalla has been rethought a number of times since and there are still plans to have a new stadium in place by 2022. The old Mestalla has been sold for the equivalent of US$ 128 million to ADU Mediterráneo. At the moment, the half-built project looks like a monument to a period of real estate excess, debt and mismanagement.
Valencia, with an overall population of 2.5 million, is Spain’s third city but the club has always been in the shadow of the big two and has only won six La Liga titles, the last of which was secured in 2004 under Rafa Benitez. It is a city that boasts two top flight teams with Levante playing second fiddle to Els Taronges (the oranges). Levante attract around 19,000 to their home games, around half of Valencia’s average gate. It is very clear who the city belongs to.
Valencia beat Chelsea earlier in the Champions League campaign in London, but in terms of league results, Frank Lampard’s team have outperformed them. Before the game on November 27, Valencia were unbeaten at home but their away form was inconsistent with only two wins in seven games.
In the Champions League, the group has developed into a very competitive mini-league. The three leading teams have beaten each other: Valencia won 1-0 at Chelsea, but lost 3-0 at home to Ajax. Chelsea then beat Ajax 1-0 in Amsterdam and then shared eight goals with the Dutch club. Lillle, the fourth club in the group, had only picked up one point in their first four games.
The group has been far from dull and the atmosphere in Valencia for a vital game suggested the Mestalla might witness another exciting evening. It didn’t disappoint, from the pre-match Valencia club song that seemed to go on forever, to the frenetic finish when the result could have gone either way.
Valencia were profligate beyond belief, their finishing hurried and lacking composure. In the first half, the chief culprit was Maxi Gómez, who had two easy chances to put Valencia ahead. They did open the scoring after 40 minutes, Carlos Soler nipping between two defenders to finish neatly from close range after a cross by Rodrigo. Valencia’s orange flags waved frenetically in celebration, but within a minute, Chelsea had levelled, Mateo Kovačić turning on the edge of the area and sending a low shot past Christian Cillessen.
With Chelsea’s open door defence and quick breaks and Valencia’s commitment to attack, it was likely that the second half would yield more goals and eight minutes into the restart, Chelsea went ahead. Ngolo Kanté’s cross was nodded on by Kurt Zouma and Christian Pulisic forced the ball into the net. Offside? Many people thought so, but VAR deemed Pulisic was level and after another ridiculous delay, the goal was given.
Valencia were not beaten, though, and continued to press and create. They won a penalty, Jorginho fouling José Gayà, but Kepa Arrizabalaga pulled-off an outstanding save, his left hand (not right, the direction he dived) palming away Daniel Parejo’s well struck spot kick.
Kepa could possibly have been at fault when Valencia levelled though Danish international Daniel Wass, who had been one of the home team’s least impressive players. Ineffective in midfield, he shifted to the right flank and netted with a cross-cum-shot that misled the Chelsea goalkeeper and sailed beyond his uncertain arms. A remarkable, if somewhat freakish goal. Valencia had missed far easier chances earlier in the game.
And they were at it again in the dying seconds, notably when Rodrigo couldn’t decide which foot to use and sent a point blank effort wide. A genuine let-off for Chelsea, but in truth, the result was a fair one. It may not have suited either team, but it also kept the group wide open until matchday six. Valencia have to travel to Ajax, Chelsea host Lille. Lampard would seem to have his team’s future in his own hands. Whatever happens to Chelsea’s young and developing team, they will be in little doubt that the competition that will benchmark them is most definitely the Champions League.