With sixteen matches to go in the 2018-19 Spanish Primera División, an almighty relegation scrap is brewing, potentially involving half the league and a host of teams who would have anticipated far more comfortable seasons. Real Valladolid do not fall into that category. Back in the top flight after a four year absence, survival was always going to be the number one goal for Sergio’s side. However their opponents, on a blustery Friday night at the Estadio José Zorrilla would be Villarreal CF, a side who following five consecutive top six finishes, found themselves just one place off the bottom and deep in the midst of an unlikely relegation battle.
Valladolid lies almost 200 km North of the capital, but the journey takes little over an hour with regular high-speed trains departing from Madrid’s Chamartin Station. Situated in the very heart of Castile, it is a very Spanish city in a country where regional identity often tends to override any sensation of national pride. The Bandera de España flies from balconies and windows all over town, occasionally accompanied by that of one of Spain’s ‘Royal’ teams – either Real Madrid or Real Valladolid. Many are casual followers of both and the recent purchase of the latter by former Brazilian galactico Ronaldo has only added to that sense of some kind of bond between the clubs.
This after all is a city that has played a significant role in the emergence of the modern-day Spain. The marriage of Isabel I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in Valladolid in 1469 set the wheels in motion for a united nation and it’s a city that’s true heydey was five centuries or more ago when the legendary Spanish writers Miguel de Cervantes and Francisco de Quevedo resided in Valladolid.
With numerous historic plazas, churches, attractive streets and mysterious alleyways, central Valladolid retains plenty of its old charm today even though its power and significance has long since declined. However on initial impressions at least, those charms certainly didn’t extend to the Estadio José Zorrilla, home of the town’s football club.
Zorrilla, for the record, was a 19th Century poet from the city who died 35 years before the football club was even formed, as opposed to a legendary Real Valladolid footballer. In terms of the ugly, outer facade at least, it’s doubtful he’d regard having the club’s stadium named after him as much of an honour. The colour scheme is a depressing mix of dirty grey concrete and in places large green-tinted windows, most likely caused by the onset of mould. Either way, the stadium has clearly seen better days with only the occasional splash of purple and white paint, in keeping with the colours of Real Valladolid.
The rusty, old floodlights at one end of the ground looked like they could conk out at any moment and the overall location of the stadium does little to add to its ambience. Situated on the outskirts of Valladolid, well away from the pretty old town, the José Zorrilla is adjacent to one of the main highways out of the city, the appropriately named Avenida del Real Valladolid. In the absence of any friendly neighbourhood bars or plazas, some fans were gathering in a couple of uninspiring establishments in a dated looking out-of-town shopping centre on the other side of the highway for pre-game drink.
There were also a few groups of mostly men drinking beer from plastic cups purchased in a bar beneath one of the main stands, that narrowly skirts Spanish football’s alcohol ban inside stadiums. To give Valladolid some credit, the set-up of some kind of fan zone on the opposite side of the ground beside a couple of astroturf training pitches, gave supporters a slightly more appealing meeting point. However on a chilly Friday night in February, the exposed nature of it wasn’t entirely inviting either.
Beyond the powerlines that ran adjacent to the training pitches, was nothing but the almost total darkness of the Castilan countryside, emphasising the stadium’s location on the very edge of town. It was originally built for the 1982 World Cup and the distant twinkling lights of Toys“R”Us on the other side of the highway, only added to the distinctly 80’s feel.
Plans have reportedly been made to increase the capacity of the José Zorrilla to 40,000 but there was little sign of recent renovations beyond a few large advertising boards on the top of one of the main stands. They carried the logos of Hummel, the club’s kit manufacturer and the shirt sponsor Cuatro Rayas, a popular local winery. The club shop was little bigger than a large living room and the long snake-like queues that were forming at each turnstile made it even easier to be turned off by the home of Real Valladolid, even before the first glimpse of the pitch.
Friday night in Valladolid.. huge game at the bottom of La Liga #RealValladolidVillarreal pic.twitter.com/EkhCFTJ17Q
— Mark Sochon (@marksoc1) February 8, 2019
As is often the case though, there was a much greater feel for the identity of the club and its supporters inside. The sense that this was a key game in Valladolid’s bid to extend their stay in the top tier into a second season was palpable, even before the players emerged from the tunnel for the pre-match handshakes. When they finally did, a wall of noise awaited them with scarves raised above heads on all four sides of the stadium and a huge purple and white striped flag covering the entire bottom tier behind one of the goals.
The rousing atmosphere seemed to have the desired effect and drew an immediate response from the Valladolid players, who came flying out the traps with a high-tempo approach that saw winger Pablo Hervías force a save out of Sergio Asenjo in the Villarreal goal in just the second minute. Moments later Asenjo was beaten by Nacho’s low drive but rescued by a goal-line clearance by veteran centre-back Daniele Bonera.
The game-plan was clear from the hosts. They were clearly in no mood to let a talented but underperforming Villarreal side have much time and space to operate in. The likes of Santi Cazorla and Pablo Fornals in the visiting midfield were being pressed and the obvious pre-game narrative of the hosts being the team more cut out for the battle that a relegation scrap invariably brings, seemed to be coming to fruition. The home supporters were doing their best to influence the game and were already berating the referee who brandished an early yellow card to Valladolid midfielder Óscar Plano for what appeared to be little more than a playful pat on an opponent’s head.
However once they’d weathered the early storm, Villarreal gradually grew into the game and the early hostility both on the pitch and in the stands began to subside. The away team’s biggest danger was Karl Toko Ekambi. The Cameroon striker had managed just three league goals since a summer move from Angers in France but was showing flashes of just why the Yellow Submarine had opted to part with €18 million to secure his signature.
Ekambi’s pace was electric at times as he ghosted past Valladolid players as if they weren’t there. However again the finishing touch was missing when he managed to work an opening for himself. The 26 year old was denied from close range by Jordi Masip in the Valladolid goal and the shot-stopper produced an even better save to keep out Alfonso Pedraza’s stinging drive at the end of certainly the best move of the First Half.
Pablo Fornals also spurned a great opportunity for Villarreal, who were playing their second match back under the stewardship of Javi Calleja, less than two months on from his initial sacking. After Valladolid’s bright opening, the visitors shaded the First Half and created the better chances but there were still a few signs of shakiness in their defence despite a recent switch to a back three. Valladolid were asking the odd question from out wide but striker Sergio Guardiola failed to capitalise on perhaps the best of their First Half opportunities, which was almost gifted to them by some unconvincing defending.
Half-Time came with the game still goalless and fans withdrew to the relative warmth of the smoky, stadium concourse, which dimly lit and with a few almost apologetic looking refreshment stands was about as enticing as the stadium’s exterior. To be fair, Valladolid are fresh from four consecutive seasons in the Segunda División, a league of cash-strapped clubs were stadium renovations are rarely high on the list of priorities, but the whole place was clearly in need of some TLC. The uninspiring surroundings did little to explain the mystery of exactly what had sparked Ronaldo into buying a majority stake in the club.
Other strange quirks, included the fact that the bottom row of seats, at least on one side of the ground offered absolutely no view of the pitch and as such remained vacant throughout. A lack of any clear form of row or seat numbering added to the confusion while the presence of a deep ditch separating the stands from the pitch was a novel way of deterring any would-be pitch invaders. The José Zorrilla also has a multi-tiered hospitality box set-up at the top of the bigger of the end stands, a sight more commonly seen at South American stadiums than on the European continent.
At the very least, there were certainly unique qualities to the stadium that for better or worse sets it apart from others in major European leagues. Truth be told, those filling the hospitality boxes weren’t exactly being treated to a classic on the pitch though and things got increasingly scrappy as the second period developed.
Real Valladolid’s threat had become almost completely restricted to set-piece situations which Villarreal continued to do a poor job of dealing with. There was precious little creativity coming from open play from the hosts and the home supporters had little to shout about as the half wore on besides the odd questionable refereeing call or half-hearted penalty appeal.
The early intensity had gone from Valladolid’s play but Villarreal were looking every bit as edgy, as you might expect from a side in their position. They had to wait until the introduction of the lively Samuel Chukwueze inside the final ten minutes to have another meaningful effort on goal but the young winger’s volley sailed just wide.
Daniele Verde’s hopeful effort from range for the hosts almost left Asenjo red-faced but he did just enough to divert it away for another Valladolid corner. By this point though, both teams seemed gripped by the fear of losing a crunch clash against a relegation rival and with neither showing any real desire to take a risk to try and win the game, referee Alejandro Hernández did everyone a favour by blowing the final whistle with the the score still 0-0.
It was a result that changed little at the bottom of the table. Villarreal remained one place off the foot of the Primera División and on this evidence, in genuine danger of suffering an improbable relegation. Valladolid continued to hover above the drop-zone but with some tricky games coming up and their fight for survival looks likely to go to the wire.
Outside the José Zorrilla, an army of buses awaited to transport increasingly frozen football fans back to more central parts of the city. Valladolid might not be high on many a Spanish football bucket list but for those looking for a bit of a throwback to the 1980’s and an authentic Castilan experience, you can do worse than pay the Blanquivioletas a visit.
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