The Spanish league season reached the halfway point at the weekend, with a familiar pairing at the top of the table and Valencia and Mallorca pressing hard behind them. With 19 matches of the season gone, FIFA.com takes a closer look at the Mediterranean duo’s campaign so far and gauges their chances of staying in the top four.
While it might be a surprise to see the unfancied Mallorcans occupying the fourth and final UEFA Champions League qualification slot, few people have been taken aback by Valencia’s return to the top places. Currently five and ten points adrift of Real Madrid and leaders Barcelona respectively, Los Chés might not be genuine title contenders just yet. But after their recent wobbles, they are more than happy to be back in the top three.
League champions for the last time in 2004, Valencia have endured plenty of ups and down in recent seasons, winning the Copa del Rey in 2008 and qualifying for the Champions League in 2006 and 2007 only to miss out in their next two attempts.
Now in his second season in charge at the Mestalla, former Almeria coach Unai Emery has brought some much-needed stability to a highly talented but under-performing squad. Such has been the turnaround under Emery that Valencia have just recorded their best figures away from home for the opening half of any season. Seven wins, two draws and a solitary defeat have given them a halfway total of 23 points on the road, three more than they collected in that championship-winning campaign of 2003/04.
“It’s still too early to think about going for the title because there are still 57 points to play for, and that’s a lot,” says a cautious Juan Manuel Mata, one of the side’s star performers. “I don’t like going around talking up our title chances. We need to go step by step and see where we are in May.”
All that has been holding Mata and his team-mates back this season is their form at the Mestalla, where they have drawn four and lost one of their nine games. Despite that handicap, however, they have been a permanent fixture in the top four since matchday eight. “We play on the counter away from home and we’re very comfortable with that,” continues the young forward. “It gives us more space to work with and we know how to make the most of it.
"At home, though, teams tend to sit back a bit and that makes it a little harder for us. But home points are vital if you’re going to do something in the league. We have to intimidate visiting teams and we need to make the Mestalla a fortress for the rest of the season.”
Valencia’s main threat lies in their formidable attacking quartet of Mata, David Silva, Pablo Hernandez and David Villa, all of them Spain internationals. The free-scoring Villa is once again among the leading marksmen in the country with 14 goals this season, just one behind Lionel Messi. Villa’s consistency at the top of the scoring charts is made all the more impressive by the fact that La Liga boasts some of the deadliest finishers in the business.
Uruguay’s Diego Forlan won the European Golden Shoe last term with 32 goals, while Barça’s Swedish import Zlatan Ibrahimovic topped the table in Serie A in 2008/09 with 25 goals, and the Real Madrid duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema finished second in England and France respectively. With such illustrious opponents in the goalscoring stakes and South Africa 2010 fast approaching, the insatiable Villa will be anxious to augment that tally and help Valencia maintain their momentum.
Islanders in the sun
Relegation candidates at the midway point last season, Mallorca eventually finished ninth after putting together the second best record in the second half of the campaign. The club has been hit hard by the economic crisis, however, with key players Miguel Angel Moya, Jose Manual Jurado, David Navarro, Cleber Santana, Lionel Scaloni and Juan Arango all leaving in the close season without any major reinforcements coming in to replace them.
Despite the lack of big names, coach Gregorio Manzano, now in his seventh season with Los Bermellones, has constructed a balanced side that has won all nine of its league matches at the ONO Estadi. Thanks to that flawless record, Mallorca have been in the top six all season.
“I’d like us to get into Europe because it brings a bit of glamour and history and Mallorca have been there before,” says Manzano, before adding a note of caution. “It would be lovely to achieve that but our objective right now is not the Champions League but making sure we stay up. That’s the league we’re playing in and that’s our goal. The team are feeling strong right now and mentally we’re beginning to get things right.”
Where Manzano’s men need to up their game is away from home, where they have amassed just seven points from a possible 30.
“Nobody expected us to do this well but we have a lot of confidence in ourselves,” comments midfielder Mario Suarez, a former Real Madrid youth prospect who has come into his own with Mallorca.
“Things are working out for us, especially at home, and we hope to start picking up more points away. The mood in the camp is fantastic and that’s been one of the keys to our success. We all have faith in each other, no matter who’s playing. The players are responding to the challenge and the team have stayed strong.”
With a whole 19 games still to go, both Valencia and Mallorca will need to work a little more Mediterranean magic if they are to keep a powerful Sevilla side at bay and hold on to their Champions League berths. For now, though, they can be content with their respective starts to an arduous campaign.