Mestalla and Higher
A December game in Spain is always welcome; sat in the sun and 20 degrees certainly beats the sub-zero conditions of Ukraine or Denmark at this time of year. Our final group game in this seasons Champions League would be at Valencia, Spain’s third largest city and United’s third most faced team from the country too. Our last trip there was for the 2010 group stage match, one of my earlier trips, memorable for a last minute winner from Hernandez whilst a young Juan Mata lined up against us.
Valencia, the team, are relatively successful in Spain and regularly finish in La Liga’s top 4, however they’ve had a difficult period in recent years with some mid table finishes, one notably featuring Gary Neville. The win away at Juventus put United in a strong position in the group, and we secured qualification with a home win against Young Boys. Not quite a dead rubber, the group could still be topped, but it meant we could relax and enjoy a trip to another great Spanish city.
Spanish Ticket Greed
Overshadowing things somewhat was a further case of Spanish clubs extorting away fans, with the ticket prices set at £77. The record high €100, our most expensive away ticket, at Sevilla earlier this year was well publicised and led to United taking measures to support us and also highlight the issue. As with that game the club opted to subside the ticket price down to £55, with this cost being passed to travelling Valencia supporters. It’s by no means the fairest way to resolve the issue, but puts the ball firmly back in the opponents court.
Ticket prices are getting a lot of coverage at the moment though, and there were some timely quotes from UEFA who have acknowledged the issue. Their President, Aleksander Ceferin, described it as a “problem” and suggested that they may look at capping prices, adding “It’s absolutely not correct that away fans are being charged five times more than the local ones.” It was refreshing to hear the views of UEFA on a topic like this, given they’ve rarely commented, and continued lobbying from FSE and other groups will hopefully see change soon.
Travelling to Valencia
With Valencia the last of our group games drawn back in August, there was a little bit more time to plan this trip. Saying that though, moving quickly after the draw is always advised if you want to get the best deal. My last few trips to Spain have involved flying to Madrid and taking trains or internal flights out to the costal cities, probably the best way to travel there in terms of options and costs. Valencia was no different, although this time it was cheaper with a return flight from Manchester for just £34 (less than half the initial price of the match ticket!).
The trains in Spain, and generally across Europe, are easy to book, affordable and tend to run on time, all of which make the UK rail system look increasingly inferior. Initially the trains were over €40 each way, some with changes too, however 3 weeks before the match we stumbled across some promotional tickets, just €22 each way for a 2 hour direct train. Worth persevering (or delaying!) for, and with travel in between the various stations it put our total travel costs at £81, about the cheapest trip we’ve done.
The City of Valencia
With one night in Madrid at the Piramides Holiday Inn (a 10 minute taxi from Atocha) before our onward journey, we were in Valencia by lunchtime of match day. A quick check in at B&B Hi Valencia Cánovas, situated right next to the Garden of the Turia and just a 10 minute walk to the Mestalla, and then we were on our way to explore the city again.
One of the more unique sights of the city is the Turia; a that still runs through the province of Valencia, however the gardens are what was the bed of the old route, with the river diverted around the city after flooding in the 50’s. It’s now a spot of bridges and greenery, and separates the city centre from the Mestalla and northern parts of Valencia.
It’s a grand city with stunning architecture on every corner, whether the impressive Colon & Central Markets, or one of the many churches and religious buildings in what is a very catholic city. Having walked up from the Joaquín Sorolla station, just south of the city, past the imposing Nord station front, we spent much of our match day in the lively Plaza de la Reina.
The square is home to Valencia’s Cathedral and prominent Micalet bell-tower, with bars and restaurants on the streets running off it. Sat here, against a backdrop of blue sky, with red, white and black flags draped on any available surface, singing and drinking with little worry about the match to come was the best way to spend the day. The rain actually came the next day, which scuppered our plans to go and see the beach, just a few miles east of the city.
There were more sights to see, including the Plaza de Toros bullring (now a museum) and another day in the sun would have been great, but it was enjoyable walking around such a relaxed city, with friendly locals, cheap beer and great food.
Getting to the Mestalla, a 55,000 capacity ground just on the edge of the city centre, was fairly easy; a 15 minute walk over the Turia bridges and set in a fairly residential area. This meant there were plenty of bar options pre or post match, necessary as unlike at Juve there was no beer served in the ground.
We didn’t know of course until we’d walked up a dozen flights of stairs, what felt like twice the height of the Stretford End to our lofty, open-roofed end. A good turnout with 2,000 reds packed in, most leaning on the rail barriers out of necessity. 51 minutes into the game however our end had half emptied, as a Phil Jones own goal made it 2-0 to Valencia. Up to that point United had been poor, with a team made up of fringe players really not up to the task. Starts for Lukaku and Pogba only justified Mourinho’s exclusion of them in recent weeks.
What made the whole affair more frustrating was that this was not a game with nothing to play for. With Juve losing to Young Boys, a United win would have seen us top the group and face a lesser opponent rather than one of the European giants, who right now we’re simply too far behind. There was a bit of a late resurgence with a Rashford goal, but the changes came too late and we slumped to another defeat on the road in Europe.
A short lock in, maybe 15 minutes, followed and we were soon back in the bars dissecting things again. We often say that the football gets in the way of a good trip, and this was another classic example of that. A perfect few days weather wise at least, especially for around Christmas.
As I write this up just a week after the match a few things have happened; we lost to Liverpool in the league, Jose got the sack, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a surprise, new (interim) manager. We’ve also been drawn to face PSG, in Paris in March. A lot needs to change at United, and the manager after a depressing run of form and performances was ultimately the first casualty. The players need to show us something more in the coming months, and then we can think about getting past a functioning team of superstars.
Total travel costs: £81
Miles travelled: 2,204
Accommodation: £50/night (twin room – £25pp)
Match ticket: £77 (€85 ) – subsidised by United to £55
Average cost of pint: £3.15
United allocation: 2,000
Result: Valencia CF 2: United 1
Match played 12/12/18