It’s said that domestic cup finals aren’t given the importance they once had, but Valencia captain Dani Parejo obviously didn’t get the memo. As the midfielder hobbled, tears streaming down his face, to collect the Copa del Rey from the King of Spain and lift Los Che’s first trophy in 11 years, the picture the midfielder painted was anything but passive.
Beyond the individual emotions, cup finals can still be significant in their pivotal nature. That was the case the last time someone upset one of LaLiga’s big two in the Copa del Rey, back in 2013, when Atlético Madrid beat Real Madrid in their own backyard and fired of a warning shot that showed it could be time to take the Colchoneros seriously again as a domestic force. A prophecy that was fulfilled one year later when they won LaLiga against all the odds.
Equally, Valencia’s 2-1 win over Barça feels like a point of inflection in a number of ways. Most obviously, it is a key marker for the victors, certifying their most successful season since the golden era of Rafa Benitez, making 2019 a year in which Champions League football, a domestic trophy and a European semi-final were all achieved.
Valencia have a squad built to achieve big things, and in the year of the club’s centenary the pressure to fulfil that potential and deliver silverware was huge. The expectations resting on the long misfiring club in Spain’s third city on this landmark year should not be underestimated. Their players and coach will have been reminded of it every day, in every human reaction they have. Parejo’s choked up comments, pitchside at final whistle, provided a glimpse into that weight.
“I’ve been at this club for eight years, and there have been really tough years. A club of Valencia’s size deserves far more joyous occasions like this. We’ve made history in a huge year for us, our centenary,” the captain remarked.
Only four months ago, 2019 looked like it would be another of those tough years for Valencia. In January, when they sat an embarrassing 12th in the league table, Marcelino’s position was in serious doubt. But Parejo led the rallying cry, sending a message from the dressing room to the people upstairs. Embracing his coach during a match against Valladolid for the eyes of the world to see, the next day he hammered home the message, insisting that a season shouldn’t be treated as lost in January, and that there was ‘time and hunger necessary to reach our goals’.
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With the players as his shield, Marcelino wasn’t sacked. Valencia ultimately finished fourth, and they are now cup winners. All thanks to the backing of a squad that fully bought into the ideas being sold by their coach, to the extent that they were prepared to put their own necks on the line to save his. Based on their resilience this year, they could yet push on to achieve even bigger things in 2020.
Will Barcelona’s players be prepared to stick out their necks for their own boss? Ernesto Valverde has just defended the league title, but following an era of dominance the expectations at the Camp Nou are so huge that the Blaugrana head has undoubtedly been hurt by Saturday’s defeat, compounding the damage done by their slip-up against Liverpool. If Valencia’s win was a turning point in the right direction, then Barcelona’s loss could be the one that sends Valverde in the other.
Much like the way they let the Champions League final slip through their fingers at Anfield, it is the manner in which Barcelona lost against Valencia which really raises the alarm. Look no further than the three remnants of their greatest team ever for evidence: it is not often than Sergio Busquets repeatedly gives the ball away, Gerard Piqué sends a switch of play straight out for an opposition throw, and Lionel Messi fails to find Jordi Alba on the overlap with a diagonal pass he has completed countless times before.
But that is exactly what happened to Barça in their disastrous first half this weekend. A mad 45 minutes to match a mad 45 minutes in Anfield, and a mad 45 minutes in Rome the year before. Three times where Barcelona’s players just didn’t look like they were buying whatever their coach was trying to sell. Valencia’s determination and commitment until the end in Seville was a stark contrast.
Piqué’s post-match flash interview on Saturday was telling. Handed the chance to give the vote of confidence to his superior, the centre-back stopped somewhere halfway. “You have to do an individual analysis on everyone, what we can improve. The future of the coach doesn’t depend on us. We have a long summer to analyse and see what we can do better”.
Compare that to Parejo’s human shield of Marcelino back in the winter, and draw your own conclusions. While the Copa del Rey winners now look to be at the start of something special, the resurgence of one of Spain’s sleeping giants finally kicking off thanks to backing the right manager for the right time, the losers have a tough call to make. Faced with a summer of some considerable transition against a backdrop of criticism, is it time to intervene, or does their manager have the authority necessary to weather the storm?