Does Scotland Have a New Side Capable of Dethroning Celtic?

The top flight in Scotland is largely frowned upon by the UK let alone other countries around Europe. Celtic and Rangers have won the highest tier in Scotland since the 1985-1986 season which has been evident proof of their dominance. Rangers were demoted to the Scottish League 2 in 2012 due to liquidation which pretty much sealed Celtic’s fate as being crowned Premiership champions until Rangers returned to the top tier but the 2014/2015 season has seen a new rise.

Aberdeen were the last side to win the Scottish Premiership before Rangers and Celtic under the management of Sir Alex Ferguson. His departure struck the club hard and they’ve never been able to replicate the results of the 80’s which saw them win 3 Scottish League titles (1980, 1984, 1985), 4 Scottish Cups (1982, 1983, 1984, 1986) and the European Cup Winners Cup for the first time in their history. They’ve been out of Europe’s most prestigious competition for almost 30 years and have struggled in the Europa League/UEFA Cup.

As it stands, Aberdeen are occupying first place in the Premiership but 5 points separate the top 5 clubs. In all truth, Aberdeen have taken advantage of the struggles occurring at Celtic. Neil Lennon’s departure from the club at the end of last season dealt them a massive blow and they decided to appoint a foreign manager in Ronny Deila who has found life tough at Scotland’s biggest club.

Their previous 7 Premiership games has also brought maximum points for Derek McInnes, staggeringly conceding 0 goals in the process. Taking 21 points from a possible 21 in the league has seen Aberdeen head into the New Year topping the table. It is the first time that neither Rangers or Celtic have been leading at the start of the year when Hearts lead in 1992.. Much has been made of Real Madrid’s recent run which they were on course to break the world record of wins in a row but their loss has signalled the end of that. Aberdeen are currently the 4th highest in the world of consecutive wins behind only Santiago Wanderers (10) of Chile, Hibernians (9) of Malta and Bayern Munich (8) of Germany. However, in terms of clean sheets Aberdeen are ahead of anyone with 7 in a row.

It is their defensive displays which have largely contributed to their success this year. Derek McIness has worked tirelessly with his defensive coaches on what he expects and it has paid dividends. Goalkeeper Scott Brown has virtually seen the same back 4 in front of him for the majority of the season with Shay Logan, Mark Reynolds, Ashton Taylor and Andrew Considine. Having the consistency of playing alongside each other week in week out can only benefit their understanding of one another’s game and McIness rarely disrupts the defence unless injury strikes.

The confidence of the players in front of the defensive third must be huge if they can push forward and be able to rely on their defence snuffing out counter attacks and not being punished on the break.

Derek McIness was staring at football abyss as he was sacked as manager of Bristol City this time two years ago and was appointed manager of Aberdeen shortly after in March 2013. The worry for their players and fans now will be that the English Premiership merry go-round could link him with a move back to England to manage. Neil Lennon is now at Bolton and Hamilton Academicals boss, Alex Neal is widely speculated to be taking over at Norwich City. But McIness has expressed his desire to stay at the club and finish what he deems as ‘unfinished business’.

The chairman, Stewart Milne, were also pleased to announce last month that the club is debt free for the first time in two decades. The prize money from winning the European Cup Winners Cup and European Super Cup back in the 80’s eventually drained out and the club has relied on selling players to keep finances at some sustainability. In past years players such as Chris Maguire and Charlie Mulgrew have been moved on to keep the money side of the club balanced. Now they’ll be hoping to keep the current group of squad to gain some longevity whilst also adding 1 or 2 new faces to improve what they’ve already got.

Adam Rooney can also take some credit for Aberdeen’s rise with 19 goals in 27 games this season. His latest double came in the 2-0 win over Motherwell and the Irish centre forward has been a big part of their success since signing in the 2014 January transfer window. He scored the decisive penalty in the 2014 Scottish League Cup Final against his former club Inverness, to clinch Aberdeen’s first trophy in 19 years. He recently signed a contract extending his stay at the club till the summer of 2018 and his commitment to the club emphasises the belief amongst the players which has many wondering whether Aberdeen can really dethrone Celtic off the top.

The Resurgence of Valencia CF

For a long time, no one seriously believed that Real Madrid and Barcelona would ever be challenged at the top of La Liga. However, the 2013/2014 season defied the odds as Diego Simone’s Atletico Madrid sealed the league title by drawing at Barcelona on a dramatic final day. Four or five years ago, Atletico was not a contender for the title in most people’s eyes. If any club was going to break the duopoly at the top of La Liga, it was going to be Valencia.

Los Che used to include the likes of Juan Mata, David Silva and David Villa within their ranks, before selling them for record amounts in order to resolve the club’s huge debt. Spain’s recent economic struggles have been well-documented and the debts of a host of Spanish clubs are continuing to climb. The sale of these players helped ease Valencia’s crisis but they were still considered a selling club as recently as 2013, when star forward Roberto Soldado joined Tottenham for 30 million Euros.

Valencia’s debt, which was rumored to have reached 400 million Euros at one point, was finally settled when Singapore businessman Peter Lim gained 70.4% of the shares at the club. He was brought in just after the summer of 2014, which meant they didn’t benefit from his financial backing in the market, but it looks as though the 2015 summer transfer window could be an exciting one for fans.

It is clear that settling the debt had a very positive effect on the players, who are no longer worried about getting paid and can now fully concentrate on the job at hand. But it seems that one of the main reasons for the club’s newfound success has been the managerial change, with Nuno Espírito Santo replacing Juan Antonio Pizzi in July 2014.

Nuno has been a breath of fresh air since his arrival from Rio Ave, where he lead the Portuguese club to two cup finals while encouraging his players to play attractive football. He is only 40 years old and is not afraid of giving youngsters a chance, partly because of their ability to quickly adapt to his tactics. It is harder for older players, who often find that learning new methods and tactics at their age can be overwhelming. The likes of Paco Alcacer (21), Jose Gaya (19), Rodrigo (23), Andre Gomes (21) and Shkodran Mustafi (22) make up half of the current Valencia side and have all come on leaps and bounds this year.

Jeremy Mathieu was a big loss for the club but when Barcelona come calling, not many players can turn them down. He wasn’t the only one departing the Mestalla: Helder Postiga, Philippe Senderos, Fernando Gago, Ricardo Costa, Ever Banega, Aly Cissokho, Michel and Jose Andres Guardado were the other high profile names shown the door, replaced with players hungry to succeed. Nicolas Otamendi was brought in from Porto and the Argentine centre half has adjusted very well to Spanish football. Shkodran Mustafi came in from Sampdoria and the German has already been called up to the national team.

Nuno also took advantage of the loan system to make his most influential signings, with Enzo Perez and Andre Gomes coming in from Benfica, while Alvaro Negredo and Bruno Zuculini joined the club from Manchester City.

These signings were all brought in to fit the system Nuno planned to use during the season. The style of play at Valencia in the past couple of seasons had been too slow, and bringing in quick and powerful youngsters would greatly benefit the club.

The Portuguese manager spent a lot of pre-season stressing to his players the importance of fighting and working for each other. He highlighted Atletico Madrid’s success under Diego Simeone, despite the fact that Real Madrid and Barcelona had better players than Atletico. In terms of hard work, Simeone’s team was miles ahead and Nuno shares this philosophy when playing against the bigger clubs: hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. This has already been evident this year, with wins against the division’s strongest sides. So far they’ve picked up six points out of a possible nine against Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona, compared to last year when they picked up only four points out of a possible 18.

Another reason for their upturn in fortunes is their strong record at home. This season, they’ve won eight games out of a possible 11 at the Mestalla, which included victories over Malaga, Atletico Madrid and a sensational 2-1 win over Real Madrid that put an end to Los Blancos’ 22-match winning run. Compare that to this stage last season, when they were defeated five times at home, including a shocking 2-1 defeat to Almeria.

Working with a young, up-and-coming manager has significantly helped Valencia this season. He has got the fundamentals right and has built a young side prepared to graft and reap the benefits. Under Nuno, the future looks bright at the Mestalla.