by Gareth Machin
written for the 2002-2003 Champs League
stage 2 group match in Spain
Valencia - I mean, it's not like they're Real Madrid, is it? No, they're better and their time has come.
Arsenal FC - you're good. You know you're good, I know you're good, so do a lot of other people. But I'm just writing to warn you as an Englishman in living in Valencia: the side that came to Highbury before Xmas was not the real Valencia, it was an cheap imitation, a pirate copy flogged to an unsuspecting public. Come March 19 in the Mestalla, expect the real Valencia to stand up.
Valencia will show respect - they have enormous admiration for Arsenal and their wonderfully fluid style. Patrick Viera, Real Madrid really did want him, it wasn't just the usual rumour to sell a few papers. Thierry Henry, how can anyone still claim that Ronaldo is better? Such style, such class, his mate Robby too. Not to mention Dennis Bergkamp, playing as well as he ever has.
But Valencia are gathering momentum, their confidence increasing with every match. Self-belief will not be a problem.
The change started just over a year ago. Then, as now, Valencia found themselves five points off the pace in La Liga. Another scrap for the champions league places, so cruelly denied the year before by Barcelona and Rivaldo's last minute bicycle kick, looked likely to be their fate. But then, with a come-from-behind win at Alaves that put them top in early February, the Valencia bandwagon started to pick up speed. Back then it was assumed that sooner or later Real Madrid would overhaul them, being the 'true' champions. They were wrong.
Valencia continued serenely, manager Rafa Benitez telling us not to get excited, he was taking it one game at a time. And we believed him. So, more importantly, did the players. There was no hurry, the league would be won in its own time. On May 5, away at Malaga, it was. Benitez' reaction as the final whistle sounded said it all - there no were no histrionics, no lavish praises offered to the gods; just a clenched fist and a satisfied smile as if there had never been a doubt. Now the bandwagon appears more like a juggernaut.
Valencia are champions now, both literally and in their own minds and the tag of nearly men has been cast away. This is why Arsenal must beware - Valencia expect to win the Champion's League and they know what it takes to do it. Yes, they recently lost consecutive finals, but that was the old Valencia, the Valencia with an inferiority complex that lived in the shadow of Real Madrid. No longer. They do not fear winning, it is not a burden, it is an exciting challenge, one that players, manager and fans alike await with excitement.
So, who's going to win this clash? Well, it all depends.
The first issue is how Valencia deal with Henry. Centre backs Ayala and Pellegrino, both argentines, are hugely experienced and hugely effective. They are also hugely prepared to scythe down an opponent if necessary. But Pellegrino is aging and Ayala, though agile, is not the quickest on the turn as Michael Owen showed so memorably in 1998. If Pires and Bergkamp find the space and have their slide rules with them, they can unlock the defence through the middle. Not many sides have managed it so far this season - Valencia have conceded the fewest goals in the Primera Liga to date and, besides, once you are past the back four there is still inspirational, charismatic, shock-headed keeper-captain that is Santiago Canizares to beat.
The midfield offers another intriguing match up. The Arsenal midfield is well known and well established internationally. Valencia's central partnership, Ruben Baraja and local boy David Albelda, have grown steadily in stature in the last couple of seasons and now look set to continue their good work with the national side for years to come. Both are hard-tackling; Baraja is also prepared to back himself in possession and look for the positive pass, not simply take the easy option. It is his ability to link with Aimar that is the key to this Valencia attack.
Pablo Aimar. If Arsenal allow him room to manoeuvre, they will lose. It is no coincidence that Valencia's step up in class coincides with El Cai's surge to prominence. In his early days, following his £13 million signing from River Plate just over two years ago, there were doubts if he was the real thing. Now you wouldn't see much change out of £30 million. Fans and respected pundits alike are comparing him to Maradona and while these claims may be overstated (although he is only 23 and still improving) he has a similar ability to wriggle out of impossible spots, ride tackles and accelerate effortlessly. Then he will draw the next defender, slip the pass and hope one of his team-mates will do the rest.
Except usually they don't and here is the weakness. Valencia don't have a genuine goal-scorer. Last season the top scorer was Baraja with just 6 goals, an incredible statistic for the best side in supposedly the strongest league. And so it has continued this year. Valencia have to create 50% more chances than most other sides to score the same number of goals. Fortunately they do and more, but if success doesn't come their way this season it will not be the defence or midfield to blame. What Valencia would give for a Thierry Henry!
Well, clearly it promises to be a classic encounter and after hours of meditation, contemplation and the like, I can now exclusively reveal how it will pan out :
Valencia's ability to defend high up the pitch and put immense pressure on the ball will be enough to cancel out Arsenal's vaunted attack. Arsenal will mark Aimar out of the game and for all Valencia's slick passing around the box they will not find a way past Seaman. When the winner comes, it will come from a set piece. Corner to Valencia, Aimar swings it in and Ayala, who can leap to quite unnatural heights, soars high above the dumbstruck Campbell to head Valencia into a 1-0 lead that they will not relinquish.
Sorry, but there it is. With any luck Arsenal will already have done enough in the previous matches because this is a match up worthy of the final. There it could be a different story; after all, Arsenal know all about winning titles at Old Trafford.
Please also read this Newsreel story about Valencia trying to move the date of the match!! We will clarify the following, in relation to the date of the match, once we are sure what it is!
March 19, St Joseph's day, is perhaps the most significant day in the Valencian calendar as it marks the end of the five day long fiesta Las Fallas ('the fires'). It is an incredible time to be in Valencia, so full of sound and colour that nothing that can be written can truly do it justice.
The festival dates to the 13th century when carpenters needed to burn waste materials accumulated over the winter but nowadays it is more an uninhibited celebration of the Spanish nature : making noise, staying up late, outlandish costumes and parades and then more noise-making. For five days you cannot escape the noise, day or night.
The fiesta is everywhere, in every main street and every back alley. Small children wander around casually tossing little fire crackers; medieval-style bands march while playing the same tune endlessly (by day five you want to take their oboe-like instruments and do some serious damage); street parties and dinners take place through the night.
But most of all Las Fallas is on the intersections of the roads. Here stand monstruous 3, 4 or 5 storey high creations of wood and polystyrene. They may depict anything - caricatures of politicians, sportsmen (this year Rafa Benitez and ex-Valencian favourite Gaizka Mendieta will feature), TV stars (including Mr Bean last year), animals, anything the designers' fertile imaginations can come up with. All of them beautiful and surreal. Each falla is the proud work of the fallas committee of that particular street - it will have taken about 10 months to design and create. There are about 400 of them all over the city.
Every day at 2pm there are the 'mascletas' in the central square, the Ayuntamiento. It is a ritual of almost sacred importance to the Valencians. A mascleta is essentially an extremely loud firecracker and, for about ten minutes or so, a huge number of these will be let off in ever more rapid succession. The noise is unbelievable and just when you think it cannot get any louder, after all, the ground and surrounding buildings are already literally shaking, the day's incendiary expert appears to decide he is in hurry to get elsewhere and lets the rest off in one go. All you can do is stand there and wonder at the madness of it all and whether your ears will ever be the same. But it's wonderful, it makes me laugh every time and I can't wait for it to start again.
Then there are the fireworks. Valencia prides itself on giving the best displays in the world and so they do. Every night on the riverbed (about 10 minutes walk from the Mestalla) there will be a display of about half an hour. The displays are so intricate, so well choreographed that it seems they can make these fireworks practically sit up and beg before exploding. The climax is always another onslaught of mascletas to make sure everyone leaves with a smile on their faces.
The grand finale comes on the night Arsenal play (as if that weren't finale enough) - it is the night of the Crema, the burning. At round about 9 or 10 in the evening every Falla, bar one, the one adjudged the best, will be sent up in flames. The infernos are immense and you hate to think what the clouds of black smoke are doing for the environment; surrounding buildings are sprayed with water just prior to the cremation and fire-engines wait close by. It is the only time in the week that anyone pays attention to health and safety. It seems an incredible waste, these beautiful statues destroyed without trace, but that's tradition for you.
The largest falla is in the Ayuntamiento and there will be a huge crowd to watch that one go up, accompanied by more fireworks. It is burnt at about midnight so there should be time to get there after the game.
And then it is over. There is no last night of partying. At about 2am in the morning everyone will go home to bed and by the next morning, so efficient is the street cleaning service, there will be no sign Las Fallas had ever taken place.
If you are coming to Valencia for the match, try and get here a day or two early. You won't regret it, it is an amazing spectacle. If you are coming on the day of the game, arrive early - most of the roads are blocked off and it will take some time to get from the airport and across town to the Mestalla Stadium.