Copa del Rey final: Valencia can see a bright future after 11 years in the shadows

A decade on from Copa del Rey glory with Juan Mata, David Villa and David Silva, Valencia is looking at a bright long-term future at last.

The Copa del Rey will be played on May 26, 12:30 AM IST.   -  Getty Images

It started with that rarest of sights: a Juan Mata header.

David Villa and David Silva combined down the left, the latter picked out a perfect cross - of course - and Mata supplied the finish, committing every bit of his five-foot-seven-inch frame to an awkward nodding of the ball beyond Oscar Ustari.

This was four minutes into the 2008 Copa del Rey final against Getafe, a game Valencia went on to win 3-1. It remains its only trophy since 2004, when it claimed LaLiga, the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Super Cup and threatened to become one of Spain's dominant forces. It was the first title in the club careers of Mata and Silva, and the third for Villa, those three precociously talented forwards leading a mismatched unit of players who had either survived the heady days of four years earlier or were brought in to patch up holes in the squad by one of five different head coaches.

And yet, this was not a successful season. Ronald Koeman was sacked two weeks later after it was battered 5-1 by Athletic Bilbao, and it went on to finish 10th in LaLiga, 34 points behind champions Real Madrid. The Copa final, then, was little more than a reprieve from the poor results, the uncertain club management, the concerns about rising debt levels and the unfinished new stadium, an all-too visual reminder of its institutional problems. Within the next three years, Mata, Villa and Silva were all gone.

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But Valencia is back in the Copa del Rey final again. Barcelona is the opponent - the team it beat in the two-legged semi-final 11 years ago. And this time, it doesn't feel like a distraction from greater concerns. This time, it feels very much part of the big picture, that there is something on the horizon; that there is even a horizon at all.

"Valencia used to be a very nervy club and it'd go through lots of coaches and sporting directors," Koeman recently told Marca. "A club that isn't calm and has so many changes isn't going to win much.

"Now, things seem to be calmer and it has an experienced coach that gives everyone a job and gets results. This is very important. In my time, we never had the necessary calmness, and this was reflected on the pitch."

Valencia's story in 2018-19 has been typically eventful. It started the league season without a win in six and failed to get out of the Champions League group stage, despite a home victory over Manchester United. At the halfway stage in LaLiga, it was 10th, 10 points off the top four and only four clear of relegation. "I've genuinely never seen anything like this," said coach Marcelino, aghast at a run of bad results and even worse luck that seemingly had him on the brink of the sack.

The Valencia of 11 years ago would almost certainly have fired him. Maybe even two or three seasons back, in the early part of Peter Lim's ownership of the club, the wells of patience would have run dry quickly. But not this time. Not this season.

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"In other circumstances, it could have got rid of the boss," said captain Dani Parejo in January. "There's a stability now and the club knows where it's going. Coaches aren't working with the idea that 'Maybe they'll get rid of me tomorrow' any more. And you can feel that."

It did feel it. Eleven wins and three defeats from its final 19 league games propelled it back into the top four at just the right moment, vindicating faith in Marcelino. Off the pitch, the club celebrated its centenary, a strong commercial programme helping to engage fans who months previously had been furiously brandishing those infamous white hankies. Its operating budget is now said to be the fourth highest in the division, and a sale of the stadium land was agreed in April, meaning the half-built Nou Mestalla could, at long last, be completed in the coming seasons.

"This weekend is an opportunity for Valencia to drive home the message – both in Spain and around the world – that, win or lose, Valencia CF is back and ready to compete with the best of the best," the club said on Friday in a review of its remarkable season. Like a Juan Mata headed goal, that's something that would have been hard to believe when that final got underway 11 years ago.

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