Without Albelda, Mata, and Mathieu, among others, Valencia certainly was hampered by key absences. And a midweek Champions League fixture did not soften the blow. But we should take a moment to appreciate that Unai Emery played with 5 defenders and was thrilled to take a point away from El Madrigal. How far we have come.
While watching the match, I was struck by the cognitive dissonance between the appearance and reality of Rubén Gracia Calmache, known as Cani. So I looked back on our season preview to read my thoughts on the 29-year-old former Zaragoza man:
"Perhaps the most vulnerable member of the expected starting XI, based on his streakiness. Fairly or not, Cani has earned a reputation as a small-game player; when Real Madrid or Barcelona takes the pitch, he shrinks from the challenge. Cani faces stiff competition from B teamers past and present. A big part of Villarreal’s runner-up finish in 2007-08, Cani could be on the move if this season does not pan out."
With Cani's contract up after this season, I drew up some arguments on both sides. Should Cani continue with the Yellow Submarine?
- Work ethic. Even if our attack is struggling, Cani finds ways to contribute on the defensive end. He has forced a number of turnovers high up the pitch, including on the game-winner against Athletic. A commitment to back-checking (to borrow an ice hockey term) is a rare quality that should be prized. Jeffrey, are you listening?
- Experience. In his fifth year with the club, Cani has lived through the highs (subcampeonato) and lows (Valverde era) and has been a contributor throughout his tenure. A steady presence in the lineup or as the first man off the bench, Cani would be a good mentor to the next generation of Villarreal players.
- Creativity. One of the hardest skills in football is to unlock a tightly-packed defense. Whether with through balls (though he attempts too many) or runs into space, either for himself or to open up room for an onrushing striker, Cani has an innate feel for the game. You can't teach that.
- Alternatives. Both Borja Valero and Jefferson Montero can play on the wing, and the club has an affinity for signing tricky wingers. If Marcos Senna stays, there will be a logjam at the attacking midfield position. Not a bad problem to have, but not everyone will remain happy and in form.
- Upside. We already know what Cani offers. He'll play a few good games, a few bad, and often blends in with the rest of the squad. He has scored only 3 goals in the last 2 seasons, and 5 assists from a creative midfielder in that span is no better. Is it time for a youngster (say Iago Falqué) to enter the breach?
- Wages. Akin to last summer's clear-out, if high earners like Capdevila and Senna leave, then Cani is a prime target. Regardless, he may be asked to take a pay cut after coming over from Zaragoza as the old Borja Valero for an exorbitant €11 million. Needless to say, he has not been worth that kind of money. And those expectations are partly to blame for the volume of criticism that he receives.