Simone Zaza smashed his shot into the ground. It was a hot cross from the right flank, a mite deeper than the Italian striker would have liked, and so he didn’t naturally and fluidly whip his foot through the ball so much as he stretched his left leg out like a wing and tried to guide it back across the goal. The volley went bouncing over the net. The ref blew his final whistle. Zaza lied down on the pitch and screamed into his hands. He had run for ninety minutes on a partially injured knee that he says he’s going to keep playing on until it gives out completely. All around him, forty-eight thousand at the Mestalla cheered: Vaaa-len-cia! Vaaa-len-cia!
Though they’ve been a mess over the past half-decade, it’s not highly unusual for Valencia to get a draw against Barcelona, as they did on Sunday. Even through their recent lean, dysfunctional, debt-ridden run, they’ve been respectable against La Liga’s current big four of Barça, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, and Sevilla, tallying a combined thirty-eight points against those clubs since the beginning of the 2013-14 season. Valencia finished a dismal twelfth last year and came away from two Barça matches with a win and a draw. They get up for big games, especially at home, where they play in what can be (but often isn’t) the most raucous stadium in Spain.
But this past weekend was a little bit different. Valencia headed into the Barça match four points behind the league leaders, second in the table, and unbeaten. They’ve got a faint whiff of the 2014 Atlético Madrid team that won the Spanish title with a great defense and just enough attacking prowess, and if they’re not quite that, they are at least playing up to their talent for the first time what’s felt like an especially long while due to executive incompetence and managerial turnover that would make George Steinbrenner blush.
The Mestalla showed up against Barcelona. Or, put another way, they were ecstatic to finally have something to show up for. The pitch was like a ship jerking to and fro on an angry black and orange sea. Valencia played mostly on the counter, as almost everybody does against Barça, and in ceding possession, they subjected themselves to the taxing horror of following the ball as Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets ping it left and right, and tracking fullbacks who make aggressive winger-like runs, and making sure that whenever Leo Messi receives a pass, he has two or three defenders crowding him. Though this isn’t a vintage Barcelona team—which feels petty to say about a squad that haven’t lost and are running away with La Liga at the moment, but they do, just a little bit, rely upon Gerard Deulofeu not to screw up—pacifying them is still exhausting work that breaks nearly every opponent they face. At some point, you lose track of Jordi Alba, and that’s the end of you.
It’s the sort of contest where a supportive, ever-nattering crowd probably helps you keep your nerve. Whatever it is that fans do for players—good vibes, keeping the adrenaline pumping, a stage upon which to perform—Los Che were happy to soak it up. The Mestalla gave them some legs or life in the later minutes of the match. And when it was over, they congratulated the players.
To Messi’s credit, Valencia didn’t lose Jordi Alba and he found him anyway, in the eighty-second minute, with a chipped pass into a space the size of a wastepaper basket, that Alba finished impeccably with his left foot. And to Messi’s further credit, he scored a goal in the first half that didn’t count because La Liga is too cheap for goal-line tech, or referees that can read street signs. There’s an argument to be made that Barcelona should have won, but it’s moot. They shared the points.
And anyway, there have been and will be many weekends in Spain that are about Barcelona. This wasn’t one of them. Sunday was about Valencia, and what’s not a comeback so much as a recovery of consciousness. As diabolical as some of chairman Peter Lim’s business moves have been since he assumed control of a club on the verge of financial collapse back in 2014, Valencia haven’t lacked talent so much as direction. Dani Parejo is one of the most skilled midfielders on the continent, but no manager could get him to run. Santi Mina was bought two summers ago after a terrifically promising couple of seasons at Celta. He arrived at Valencia and immediately looked out of his depth. Rodrigo Moreno has his gifts, but for long stretches of his tenure with Los Che, he’s been foolishly deployed as a pure striker.
As all sharp coaches do, Marcelino has clarified a few things for his players. Valencia attack directly now. They’re defensively organized. The players work with and without the ball, or they don’t play. The ideas aren’t ingenious, but they’re communicated effectively. Valencia have an identity now, and it’s similar to other Marcelino squads, specifically the tough-to-penetrate, fast-breaking one he helmed at Villarreal. The one that finished sixth, sixth, and fourth in his three seasons there, with a budget the size of a neighborhood coffee shop’s. With Valencia’s resources, Marcelino is building something altogether more dangerous.
The Barcelona match was Valencia cruising through a checkpoint, of sorts. They’ve now played Madrid, Atleti, Sevilla, and Barça without losing. This uptick officially isn’t some early season fluke. Their title odds are long, and they’re not even favorites to finish second or third with Madrid and Atleti lurking behind them, but they’re for real and being where they’re at in late November is an achievement by itself.
If you want to understand why this matters, all you need to do is tune into a Valencia home game. This is a big club—six Liga titles, a pair of Champions League finals—with a strong regional identity and lots of fans. When they’re flying, it’s like when the Knicks or the Packers have a good team. Something about it is extra special. The stadium vibrates in a way others don’t. As it did on Sunday and will for as long as Los Che keep racking up points. There is a sense that this is where Valencia are at the moment is where they belong, even though or perhaps especially because if it’s not where they always are. But then the universe often feels out of whack in difficult to pin down ways, and that makes it so, on the rare occasion that it feels just right, you know when to celebrate.