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'V' signs

Even though Ronald Koeman started off his Valencia career with a surprising home defeat to Rosenborg in midweek, it was unlikely that his team would play as badly this weekend on his league debut, and so it proved.

Valencia looked more like their usual selves in defeating a poor Murcia side 3-0, and were buoyed by the return of the excellent David Villa, who scored twice.

Koeman seemed to dedide that some drastic action was necessary after the midweek defeat, dropping the previously in-form Joaquin along with Fernandes and Moretti and handing the baton to Silva and Marco Caneira. It paid off handsomely, meaning that Valencia at last staunched the home-based haemorrhage after four consecutive defeats - to Chelsea, Espanyol, Real Madrid and the aforementioned Rosenborg.

Valencia's fans have a reputation for being too hard to please, a reputation based on a certain amount of truth, but after such a volatile start to the season they seemed justified in their complaints. And as ever, the word 'crisis' is always a relative term for clubs with demanding supporters. After Saturday's win, Valencia are tucked in nicely in fourth place, in the Champions League and a mere four points behind leaders Real Madrid. It's not exactly a tragedy.

It's good to see Koeman back in Spain, not far from the scene of his triumphs as a player with Barça, the club where he also managed as assistant for a short spell in the late 1990's, before returning to Holland to manage Vitesse Arnhem. It's not so good to see another case of a manager being tempted so early in the season to move clubs, following on from the Juande Ramos case a fortnight ago. There's something a bit bothersome about the ease with which these things take place now, and the paucity of comment in the international press over the rights and wrongs of a manager abandoning ship so readily, although one can never stand in the way of any individual's 'ambition', nor hold it up for criticism.

High-profile managers are sacked, often at this stage of the season, with the logical consequences this brings in its wake - and if Mourinho really didn't fancy it, a Spanish-speaking manager with experience of La Liga and a reputation for putting things in order was the obvious menu of the day. Plenty of Spanish journalists can hardly wait another month for Mourinho to finally accept a job here, although the rumours situate him in Italy for his next post. It's the sound-bites they crave, which is understandable given the paucity of 'characters' in the top-flight at this particular time. Koeman is not one for too much chit-chat with the press, but he does come with a reputation for being an attack-minded manager, despite his playing career as a defender (albeit a goalscoring one).

Like Ramos, Koeman is taking on something of a risk in sporting terms, by which it is meant that neither of them is likely to suffer in economic terms - whatever the future may hold. Koeman has inherited a side in transition, with several senior figures on the decline or on the verge of it (Cañizares, Baraja, Albelda, Marchena, Angulo, Vicente, Helguera, Morientes), with all but the final two on the list having been at the club for some years.

Ayala has gone, but no figure of real authority has taken his place. Villa and Silva are the brightest new lights, with Joaquín capable, on his day, of wondrous things. But he remains unpredictable and moody, with the motives for his being dropped this weekend somewhat vague. And despite the fact that the club has several talented players on its books, the overall philosophy during the last few years has been a cautious one - a theory disputed by some, but justified by others who still see the long shadow of Hector Cúper reflected in the squads that have been assembled over recent years - with flair not exactly absent, but hardly the priority either. Maybe it is this that finally stretched the fans' patience to the limits, after last winning the league title in 2004, added to the tiresome internal disputes between technical staff and a president who has yet to win the complete confidence of the 45,000-strong club membership.

Can Koeman turn things around - in the sense of bringing back a bit of joy and light to the club? As he admitted to the press in midweek, he had seen things in his first week from behind the desk that he didn't 'like at all', an observation that saw him gather together three of the senior players for a parley regarding the importance of everyone pulling together. What he had clearly sensed was what people have been saying for some time about the club, namely that its most senior figures had formed cliques into which several new signings had been permitted entry according to their stated preferences. These preferences were linked to the old Quique-Carboni dispute, with the battle-lines so clearly drawn that players had been forced to identify with one side or the other.

Carboni's removal from the club in summer had of course failed to unite these factions, a divisive situation of which Koeman was well aware before he put pen to paper. But he's come anyway, accepted the challenge and got off to a decent start, in the league at least. Then again, Murcia weren't exactly the scariest of opponents, playing very poorly in the Mestalla on Saturday night. Next week there are no games, so Koeman has time to rest on the laurels of this win, but in a fortnight's time faces a tricky encounter up at vastly improved Racing Santander, sitting prettily in 7th place, just four points behind Valencia. If they can emerge from that game with some credit, then the shi may begin to steady itself.

The other 'V' sign this week is the rise and rise of Villarreal, now in a solid second place after their breathless 3-2 home win against Sevilla. They're three points ahead of Barça and are the league's second-top scorers, after Real Madrid. They finished fifth last season after a storming second half to the season, and at present look as though they could at least emulate their best-ever finish, which was 3rd place in 2004-2005.

The wonderful things about their form this season is that no-one really expected it. After a problematic summer of which Riquelme was the unwanted protagonist, it seemed as if manager Manuel Pellegrini's famous man-management abilities were on the wane. Nothing of the sort. Not only does the Chilean demonstrate an unerring ability to get the best out of either unknown or allegedly declining players, he also has an eye for shrewd purchases of lesser lights, converting then into more effective players than they ever seemed previously.

Ex-Arsenal man Roberto Pires is no spring chicken at the age of 34, and could easily have disappeared without trace, but has re-emerged this season as a major figure. Diego Forlan, as was expected, moved onto a higher salary at Atlético Madrid, but is at present looking up the table at his former club. Midfield holder Marcos Senna, who flirted briefly with the Spanish national side and who accompanied them to the 2006 World Cup, has also returned to the form that caught Luis Aragones' attention in the first place, and Santi Cazorla, signed from Recreativo in summer, looks an excellent complement. Giuseppe Rossi, a player who never quite looked the part at Manchester United, is certainly looking it now and is up there in the top scorers' list with seven. The little Turk Nihat was almost completely forgotten about after having suffered another knee injury after joining the club last season, but has been another one to re-emerge this season. If he starts playing regularly again, defences watch out.

At the back, Joan Capdevila was a clever signing from Deportivo and at the moment, no-one seems to be able to quite get the measure of the Yellow Submarine, as they rather unimaginatively call themselves. Their only slip-up was the horrendous home defeat to Real Madrid, a game that significantly failed to put them off their stride. Maybe there's not enough depth to the squad for them to really sustain a challenge, but you never know. It would make the season a very interesting one and demonstrate once again the greater democracy in the higher reaches of La Liga than in the other major European leagues.

As if to underline the point, Mallorca took Real Madrid all the way in the Bernabéu, finally succumbing 4-3 in a wonderful game, whilst Getafe once again proved to be Barça's bogeyman, beating them 2-0 in a game that echoed their famous cup semi-final win last season - in performance if not in score. Barça were very poor, but Getafe simply played them off the park. Time for a wee rest now, but as the colder Christmas shopping period begins, La Liga is beginning to heat up very nicely indeed.


• Phil's revised and updated book White Storm: The Story of Real Madrid, including a whole new chapter, is available to buy and charts the history of the great club from its foundation to the modern era.

• Also still available are Morbo, Phil's splendid story of Spanish football, and An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure.

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