The Journeyman | Vamos Valencia: Part 15 – Ballon d’Or

Twelve games into a first title defence since 2004, Valencia CF were unbeaten and just one point off pacesetters Barcelona moving into November 2028.

We began the month with a sixth successive win and clean sheet with a 4-0 thumping off Girona. The in-form striker-turned-winger Vedran Stamenkovic opened the scoring on 23 minutes, then free-scoring striker Philip Cohen and a José Gaya penalty had us comfortable at half-time. And substitute striker Federico Seoane wrapped things up late on.

And that streak continued with a 3-0 win at Celta. New midfielder Sergio Carrillo got things started early on then Juan Martín Sancho won a penalty after 40 seconds of the second half, which Gaya converted again. Substitute Vladan Cula got a late third, which was his first goal of the season. Gaya now has 5 league goals in 14 games this season, which equals his tally of last season.

The previous day, Barca won El Clasico 3-0 at Real Madrid, which took them to 13 wins from 14 matches! However, that streak ended with a 0-0 draw at Villarreal. And we took full advantage with a convincing 3-0 win at home to Real Sporting with goals from Sancho, Cohen and a Carrillo screamer.

The match also saw vice-captain José Gaya cement his status as a Valencia legend by becoming the club’s all-time record league appearance holder. He’s been at the club for 18 years and also made 63 appearances for Valencia Mestalla (our second team) between 2011 and 2014. What an absolute legend.

Another home game saw a familiar face return as former striker Son Heung-Min’s new side Real Valladolid came to town. But his replacement Cohen ensured there’d be no “biting the hand that used to feed him” as the Englishman bagged both goals in a 2-0 win, which took him to the top of our goalscoring chart for the season with 11.

Our great form saw me lift the November manager of the month, which is my third award of the four available so far this season.

But our streak of not conceding ended at Leganés, who scored with their first shot of the match – because of course they did. But we bounced from two unlikely sources, as young centre-back Nicola Massari scored his first for the club then Marco Kana smashed home his first of the season after 69 minutes.

Top of the table clash

That was followed by a huge top of the table clash with a visit to Camp Nou. I decided to change things up to a defensive 4-1-4-1 formation I’d been training the boys on, as Barcelona’s attack is so strong and we had loads of exhausted players.

It didn’t look to have gone well as right winger Antonio Carlos scored on 15 minutes and Barca were battering us. But I demanded more and out of nowhere Cohen raced through and smashed home with our first shot on 35 minutes! (No more whinging about the AI scoring with its first shot… maybe…) We somehow held on for the rest of the match for a vital draw despite Barca outshooting us 22 to 2.

And that sent us into a three-week winter break, strangely timed through the middle of December returning with a game on New Year’s Eve, three points clear and still unbeaten after 18 games.

Ballon d’Or

Cohen had struggled in that return game but FIFA clearly hadn’t been watching it as the striker picked up the Ballon d’Or! He’d scored 32 goals in 46 appearances in this calendar year, and I’m pretty certain this is the first time one of my players has won the award on FM20. Cohen also picked up the FIFA FifPro Player of the Year, which had the same exact top three.

He also came third in FIFA Best Men’s Player, which was won by Erling Haaland who wasn’t even in the Ballon d’Or top three. So that doesn’t make much sense.

Antonio de Lima won the FIFA Goalkeeper of the Year, after only conceding 19 goals in 47 matches. That is ridiculous! Speaking of ridiculous, on the same day this was announced Leipzig came in with a bid of £18 million that I didn’t even give the courtesy of looking at.

Club record sale

2029 began with a club record sale as backup striker Federico Seoane moved to Tottenham for a cool £84 million. We were in massive need of the cash as some of our 50 league game transfer clauses kicked in, plus this meets a board objective to sign young players to sell for a profit.

Plus, we’d just signed Colombian wonderkid Diego Gutiérrez, who scored 19 goals in 32 games for Atletico Nacional, for just £3 million.

Winter rested

The winter break gave us a chance to rest a whole host of players who were absolutely knackered. But we did get our first glimpse of this year’s youth intake, which again doesn’t look great save potentially a winger.

Our first game back was at home to Granada and the winter break seemed to have its effect as we laboured to a 1-0 win secured by Kana’s strike. Then a defensive crisis saw us go to 4th-placed Betis without either of our first-choice centre backs and our holding midfielder. And we claimed another backs against the walls 1-1 draw, in a game in which Betis had 30 shots! Another very lucky draw in a top of the table clash. And in that game, Soler also got injured…

And another tough test followed at 5th-placed Villarreal. But the boys put in a huge performance to win 3-1 with goals from Carrillo, Sancho and Stamenkovic. Three of our last four matches had been away to the teams in second, fourth and fifth and we’d come through them unbeaten with a very respectable 5 points.

We then welcomed 7th-placed Malaga to Nuevo Mestalla and put in a great display. Our two central midfielders Carrillo and Cula scored within 4 minutes of each to have us two-up inside 20 minutes. Then Gaya bagged a penalty and substitute Rodolfo Ravera scored his 11th of the season late on. Worryingly, Cohen has gone a huge, for him, 8 games without a goal, but did play a 7.5 and had one disallowed against Malaga.

That was followed by a trip to 19th place Granada, who scored after 6 minutes. We plugged away and eventually got level one minute before half-time with another Gaya penalty then Cohen ended his 10 hour goal drought on 59 minutes to win it. And we were on the road again at 7th-placed Real Sociedad, this time easing to a comfortable 1-0 win thanks to Sancho’s first-half goal.

Then Getafe, newly managed by Lionel Messi in his first non-playing role, came to town. But his new team was eventually no match for us as Stamenkovic and Cohen scored early in the second half.

That left us top of the league one point clear of Barcelona, well clear of Real Madrid and still unbeaten with 12 games remaining.

Champions League bottle job!

Our players were exhausted from the league exploits, so I started rotating fairly heavily for Champions League games. It didn’t work so well at AC Milan, where we did pretty well to only lose 2-1, but it did at Shakhtar, who we beat 2-0 with goals from Cohen and Turkish midfielder Sait Bayburt’s first for the club.

That meant a point at home to Leverkusen would secure qualification and we went ahead through a ridiculous own goal. But the Germans came flying back with a 73rd minute equaliser and a 95th minute winner. Gutting! But onto the Europa League.

In the other European competition we were drawn with Olympiakos in the first knockout round. And the tie was all but over after 24 minutes of the first leg as we raced into a 3-0 lead through a Sancho brace and Gutiérrez’s first for the club. And a 4-0 away leg win eased us through 7-0 on aggregate.

Join us next time as we push into the final 12 games of La Liga 2028/29 and move into the latter stages of the Europa League.


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