When Stoke City Football Club take on Valencia Club de Futbol we should all be paying attention. It is a game that could answer a question or two. Even I can accept that it is not often a Europa League last 32 tie is considered to be one of the years most important games, but this one has some potential.
Yes, this game could be the nearest we ever get to finding out if Leo Messi can indeed ‘do it on a cold thursday night in Stoke’, and thus finally become an unqualified great of the footballing world. Whilst in the eyes of most associated with Some Goals, this is a frankly ridiculous question and one that needs never be answered, the fact that it neatly sums up the Premiership’s, and English football in general’s image of itself and its rivalry with La Liga. It is a game that could go a small way towards telling us if the glittering talent in Barcelona’s world beating first 11 (Ok, ok, first 15 to 20), and the rest of La Liga, perhaps couldn’t cut it in the ‘rough and cold’ premiership. Whilst many looked for answers in Barcelona’s demolition of Man United last May it is games like this that could reveal more about the relative merits of La Liga and England’s foremost footballing division.
The emergence of Stoke City in the last few years has been one of the premierships biggest success stories, and there continual, gradual improvement, from staying up in there first season, to the top half finishes and cup finals of last year has eventually led them to Valencia. It is still struggle to believe that the Potters will be visiting the Mestalla, especially for those of us who remember Pablo Aimar, Kily Gonzales & Gazika Mendieta’s Champions League days, but the fact that they are speaks volumes of what can still be achieved in modern football with a sensible attitude towards transfers and good coach at the helm. I think it is fair to say Stoke are yet to look out of their depth in Europe. It could be argued that they are just the next Southampton, Blackburn, Bolton or Aston Villa, a team enjoying the European adventures a purple patch in the league or cup can bring. However every indication says that Mr Pulis intends to do the right thing and take the game to Valencia and whilst how the Potters will fair in the Mestalla is anyone’s guess, it seems they are scared of no one on their own Staffordshire turf.
Valencia are almost the anti-stoke. Since the heady days just after the turn of the last century they have contiued the tradition of playing exciting attacking football, and nurtured some of the continents finest players. Messrs Villa, Mata and Silva all played in a squad that may not have put in a genuine title challenge but has cemented itself as one of the best of the rest in Spain and a regular one the European scene. The fact that this footballing almost-excellency continues despite crippling financial mismanagement proves one of La Liga’s main strengths over the Premiership. Whilst the lack of collective TV deal does seem to be pushing the league down the SPL path, this lack of funds amongst the ‘lower 18’ puts the onus on them to develop their own kids. Valencia have allways had some of the most exciting talent on the continent pass through, and when you are producing kids as good as the ones that are coming out of Spain it is understandable why you may not feel the need for Redknapparain transfer dabbleing. It is this production line, coupled with an eye for a bargain that has seen them continue on a successful path whilst riddled with financial issues, one that several teams in England have failed to tread. (cough, Leeds).
So whilst it will be interesting to see how the two clubs current approaches; Stokes measured transfer activity and Valencia’s ‘It’ll be fine as long as we keep faith in the kids’ compare, the biggest measure of each club’s league should come in the level of tactics employed. Whilst Stoke have played good football, and still successfully employ their Delap innovation, it is fair to say they have achieved their place through ‘solid’, strong play. They are not playing the kind of football that Swansea have employed so brilliantly so far this season. Whilst this as stood them well in the Premiership, it will be interesting to see if a Valencia side with more attacking options can employ more innovative tactics to their advantage.
It is a bit of a classic English graft and grit, meets Spanish flair tie. Like they used to be when the English were in Europe, before the big boys of the premiership started importing talent and tactical nous in a big way. Can a Stoke side that have held their own against the aforementioned premiership elite do so against a real life European big fish? Channel 5 will be glad to hear I think it will be interesting finding out.