If you think it will be tough to lose one of Valencia and Monaco before the Champions League group stage, then spare a thought for Jorge Mendes. One suspects that the game’s most powerful agent suppressed a gulp as the names of the two clubs were read out successively in the playoff draw.
Mendes’ heavy involvement in the transfer policies of both is well documented. Vadim Vasilyev, Monaco’s highly visible vice-president, mandated him to help buy (and later move on) James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao.
Ever since Mendes’ close friend and associate Peter Lim completed his takeover of Valencia last year, as reported by the Straits Times, he has also been an omnipresent shadow at the Mestalla.
The surprise arrival of Nuno as coach last summer bore the fingerprints of Mendes; as documented on ESPN FC, the former goalkeeper had been Mendes’ first client back in the ‘90s, when he was still running a provincial nightclub.
That vote of confidence paid off nicely, with the 41-year-old guiding Los Che back into La Liga’s top four and impressing with his nous, earning an extended contract in the process, as per Inside Spanish Football.
This, however, is arguably Nuno’s biggest challenge yet. Since the reformatting of the Champions League qualifying in 2009, dividing the campaign into the Champions and Non-Champions Paths, there has always been the guarantee of some tasty ties in the latter section of the draw. This falls squarely into that category.
If the contrast in quality between La Liga and Ligue 1 might suggest Nuno’s side, who open the tie at home this week, are favourites, then Monaco’s impressive run to the quarter-finals of last season’s competition should weigh heavily in this context. There is, curiously, probably less pressure on the Principality club than opponents who have not played in the Champions League for two-and-a-half years.
That Valencia side, eliminated by Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16, is unrecognisable from the XI that will carry a packed Mestalla’s hopes this week. Captain Dani Parejo, Sofiane Feghouli and Antonio Barragan are the only three from the XI that started that second leg at the Parc des Princes still on the payroll.
With the club pre-Lim stricken by financial crisis, it got worse before it got better, with Juan Antonio Pizzi the unfortunate scapegoat for an eighth-place finish in 2013/14 after the Singaporean businessman began his protracted move to power. It had been an end result hardly tempered by an agonising Europa League semi-final exit to Sevilla—Unai Emery was the coach, himself underappreciated at Valencia before moving on in 2012.
Memories of that night, when Valencia entered stoppage time set fair a place in the Lisbon final, reminded you exactly how great expectation surrounding the club is. That Valencia side was an unexceptional one in a tricky situation, but before Stephane M’Bia’s last-gasp goal whipped the rug from under them, the atmosphere was cacophonous.
It will be a little different on Wednesday. It’s a demanding crowd, but a compelling one when the situation demands. It goes without saying that Monaco will have to find the strength within during the return. Last season’s average attendance at the Stade Louis II was 7,811 (in Ligue 1 matches), a slide from the golden era of Didier Deschamps’ side that reached the 2004 final (who attracted an average of 11,772).
Many familiar with French football may lay the blame for that at the door of Nuno’s compatriot and opposite number, Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim. This would be reductive and unfair, but Jardim’s defensive tactics have attracted plenty of criticism in the Hexagon. Former France striker Christophe Dugarry, now a pundit and co-commentator for Canal+, claimed watching Monaco left him “bored to death” last season, as per Le Parisien (in French).
Jardim bit back at Dugarry with interest, but the numbers aren’t good for Monaco, especially at home. They scored more than once in just six Ligue 1 home games last season, winning only eight times in 19 attempts and scoring just 23. Though Monaco have started this season very well, Friday night’s 0-0 draw with Lille was all too familiar: domination, but no killer blow.
The 3-1 win at Arsenal in the first leg of the Champions League’s last 16 was amazing not only for Monaco’s organisation and dazzle; it was also that their attacking verve on the counter-attack was so out of character. The sense is that if Valencia can stop Monaco from scoring in Spain, they will have taken a huge step toward the group stage.
It’s not that the two clubs don’t share a few woes, however. Both would be further forward with the presence of a prolific striker. Big arrivals Alvaro Negredo and Rodrigo have both failed to convince at Mestalla, with the 70 Liga goals that Valencia scored last season a real triumph of team effort. The developing Paco Alcacer (still only 21) hit 11 despite one big drought, and tied for top scorer with captain Parejo, a midfielder. Negredo and Rodrigo got just eight between them.
The role of hero is clearly there for the taking. Negredo is one of those who could be ready to step up, with recent talk of a return to Sevilla only quelled by the numbers involved, which are likely to be prohibitive for Emery’s present club.
Certainly, the demand will be on him and the home side, rather than a respected team that suit the role of underdogs. The departure of Geoffrey Kondogbia and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco—the stars of that Arsenal triumph—will allow Monaco to retain that role. Post-James and Falcao, they are building with youth, and the development of Bernardo Silva, to name but one, suggests they may do so successfully.
Lim (and, we guess, Mendes) have bigger plans for Valencia, plotting toward a resumption in work on the Nou Mestalla, the infamously delayed new home, where they will hope to reincorporate that formidable atmosphere into a new, more modern setting.
Mendes' clients like Enzo Perez, Rodrigo and Andre Gomes will be expected to contribute heavily, with others such as Ricardo Carvalho and Bernardo (but not the injured Joao Moutinho) in their way. The stakes are huge, but Mendes will end up with a few winners on his side either way.