Valencia host Bayer Leverkusen at the Estadio Mestalla tonight in a game crucial to their hopes of progressing from Group E of the UEFA Champions League. Two draws and a defeat in their opening three games have left the Spaniards with precious little margin for error, a fact recognised by Che striker Roberto Soldado, who spoke to FIFA.com on the eve of the crunch meeting with the Germans and also explained how his latest career move is working out.
“It’s a key game but we still believe we’ll make it to the last 16,” said the 26-year-old, whose contribution will be vital to achieving that objective and whose prime form has helped Valencia make a solid start in La Liga, in contrast to their struggles in Europe.
The former Real Madrid man has picked up where he left off in 2010/11, which he ended with a glut of goals. With six so far this term, he is La Liga’s leading Spanish goalscorer and lies fourth overall behind Lionel Messi, who has 13 goals, and Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain, both tied on ten.
“I’m delighted to have kicked off the season with a few goals, which is what you want when you’re a striker,” commented Soldado. “I hope I can keep knocking them in all season and help Valencia finish as high as possible. And on a personal level it would be great to finish among the top scorers in the league too.”
As the quietly-spoken goal-getter acknowledged, he is as relaxed off the pitch as he is competitive on it. A quicksilver, instinctive finisher, Soldado’s lust for goals has served him well since he took on the daunting task of filling the void created by David Villa’s departure for Barcelona, the replacement ending the season with 18 strikes in all, the same as Villa managed with his new employers.
“I knew very well I was coming to a big club where Villa was a hero to the fans,” Soldado said. “It was tough to fill his shoes but it turned out to be a pretty good season for me. Everyone in the team pulled together and though the club lost a few big-name players last year, we managed to make up for that.”
A similar scenario was played out before the start of the new campaign, with respected dressing-room figures such as Carlos Marchena, Juan Manuel Mata and Joaquin taking their experience elsewhere.
“There are always changes in any team,” explained Soldado, who within the space of a year has become one of the mainstays of the squad. “We’ve lost some old heads, but they’ve been replaced by young players with lots to offer and plenty of desire. They really want to achieve big things with a big club like Valencia.
"My team-mates are happy with me and I’m delighted to be here. And when I was offered the chance to become one of the club captains, I took it with both hands. It’s a big responsibility but I’m thrilled about it and ready to do a good job.”
Battling with the big two
Born and bred in Valencia, Soldado has bags of Liga experience under his belt already. Leaving his hometown at an early age to join Real Madrid, he then enjoyed a spell with Osasuna before trying his luck again at the Bernabeu. A stay at Getafe followed before he returned to his roots in the summer of 2010.
“Every single step I’ve taken in my professional career has helped me get where I am today,” said the father of two. “I don’t regret anything I’ve done and I’ve learned something every time. The way I look at it is that I had to go through all those phases to get where I am today at Valencia, where I’m playing the best football of my career.”
As Soldado went on to explain, Los Che have the objective of closing the gap on Spanish football’s dominant duo of Real Madrid and Barcelona, having finished 25 points behind them in finishing third last season: “We all want to take the fight to them, but we know how strong and consistent they are and how few points they drop. Valencia need to have the belief they can take points off them, though. We have to believe we can hurt them.”
Soldado and Co proved they can do that in holding Barcelona to a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Mestalla earlier this season. The intensity with which Valencia performed on that occasion reflected that of their coach Unai Emery, one of the most animated and passionate figures in Spanish football.
“He’s a different character when he’s in the dressing room,” said Soldado when asked what his effervescent coach is like behind the scenes. “He always likes us to play a dynamic game and to keep things moving. He wants things to be a done a certain way and he’s very demanding about that. And when he’s watching from the touchline he wants us to be every bit as committed as he is.”
Committed to the Valencia cause, the ever-improving Soldado is also hoping his club performances can help him resurrect his international career, currently restricted to two friendly appearances in June 2007.
“I’ve still got that desire and that hope, but I need to do even better,” he said. “I just hope to keep on improving throughout the season and get my chance somewhere along the line. It’s every player’s dream to be in the squad for EURO 2012, and I’m going to keep on giving my all for my club with the hope of getting that extra little reward.”