Love was in the air on Valentine’s Day as Valencia Football Club confirmed the appointed of one of their former players, Rubén Baraja, as the first team coach. For once, the short-term experiment of plugging the gap with “Voro” until a new manager was found had not worked. The owners acted quicker than expected to find a full time replacement for Gattuso. Sensibly, they turned to a fan favourite to head Valencia’s fight to avoid relegation.
The fear of dropping a division has become a distinct reality, especially after three consecutive defeats under the interim coach… against Real Madrid, Getafe and Athletic Bilbao respectively.
Baraja was a good choice for Valencia on several fronts. He is an idol of many and the midfielder has a great connection with the fans, which could also temporarily deflect some of the animosity felt by the supporters to Peter Lim and his entourage.
“El Pipo” as he was affectionately known when commanding the midfield of Los Che, spent ten years at the club from 2000-2010 after signing from Atlético Madrid. He was an instrumental figure in the side that won the 2 Ligas under Rafa Benitez, and he played for the national side in the 2002 World Cup and the 2004 European Championships in Portugal.
On retiring, he turned to the coaching arena as an assistant with Atlético Madrid in 2011 before returning to Valencia CF… at the end of 2013 to help coach the youth and B teams. A couple of years later, the opportunity to manage Elche proved to be the dangling carrot that prised him away from Valencia. Since then he has also been in charge of quality teams like Rayo Vallecano, Sporting Gijon, Tenerife and Zaragoza.
Leaving the Aragon club in 2020, he has spent the last three years keeping a low profile before Valencia came calling with an offer too good to refuse. He is joined at the Mestalla by another former favourite Carlos Marchena, who was part of Fernando Hierro’s backroom staff for Spain at the 2020 World Cup in Russia.
The duo started their managerial career with Valencia in the bottom three, and with a match up with Getafe in Madrid, who were one place lower in the table.
The six-point relegation battle was a feisty affair, as is always the case when playing the minnows from Madrid. Another late goal sealed the visitor’s fate, as the former Levante favourite Borja Mayoral scored the only goal of the game eight minutes from time, to get Baraja and Marchena off to a losing start.
Warm applause greeted the new management team in their first game in charge at the Mestalla. The visitors were Real Sociedad, who are having an excellent season and are well on course for European football next season.
The only goal of the game came when the outstretched foot of Zubeldia poked the ball past his own keeper as he tried to prevent Hugo Duro from having the opportunity to fire into an open goal. The error was created after a fine low cross by Lino had left the Basque defender with very few options in preventing the opening score.
The slender lead at half time was threatened on numerous occasions in the second half by the team from San Sebastian. However, for once, the home team were resolute in defence…and claimed three precious points in their attempt to climb up the table.
Next up, the small task of taking on league leaders Barcelona at the Nou Camp. One of Baraja’s finest moments in the number 8 shirt of Valencia was the left foot screamer he scored at the Mestalla in the semi-final of the Copa Del Rey in 2008. It helped Los Che to a two legged victory and culminated in Ronald Koeman’s team beating Getafe in the final, which both Baraja and Marchena played in.
Barcelona took the lead with a third of the first half completed. Raphina lost his marker and beat Mamardashvili to an aerial duel in the penalty box that resulted in the former Leeds player heading into an empty net.
Both sides cancelled each other out for the next 45 minutes, although Barcelona did miss a penalty when Fernando Torres placed his spot kick just wide of the goal, as the ball skimmed the post.
Then, on the hour mark, Barcelona were reduced to ten men when a blatant foul from Araújo prevented Hugo Duro a one on one opportunity with Ter Stegen.
The straight red card ensured Valencia had the majority of chances in the final half hour, but they could not breach the Barcelona rear guard, despite going close on various occasions.
A vociferous shout for a penalty a few minutes from time for Valencia fell on deaf ears and was deemed not even worthy of a VAR review. It summed up Los Che’s day as it certainly seemed more of a claim than the one Barcelona requested, and received. Once again, zero points when at least one point seemed a fair conclusion.
Meanwhile Levante UD continue to prowl on at the top of their division as they look to strike back to La Liga at the first time of asking.
Since the New Year they have only lost in the League (to Huesca) and are currently handily placed for promotion. Realistically, five clubs are vying for the two automatic spots.
This month, Los Granotas have winnable fixtures on paper, but looming on the horizon are away games with Eibar and Las Palmas, two of their main rivals in the promotion chase. A calm head and a good month could put the team from the North of the city in pole position as the business end of the season gets closer.
More good news for Levante UD Femenino came when their left back Paula Tomás Serer made her full international for Spain. The El Verger native played the full 90 minutes in the 3-0 victory over Jamaica that was part of Cup of Nations invitation competition in Australia.
She also came on as a second half substitute in the match against the Czech Republic that the Spaniards also won by a 3-0 margin. Spain finished runners up in the four team event, behind the hosts Australia who won all their games, including a 3-2 defeat of Spain.
Report by John Howden
Article copyright ‘24/7 Valencia’
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Racing v Levante UD March 26 – 16.15h
Levante UD v Real Zaragoza March 31 – 21.00h