Seeking success the Barca way
There is quite some difference both meteorologically and culturally between northern France and the Mediterranean coast, but Valenciennes is currently as similar to Barcelona as it is ever likely to get. The city's football club has not been moved, US franchise-style, to Catalonia, but Daniel Sanchez's men are just about on par with Tito Vilanova's side right now.
Sadly for Sanchez, he does not have a Leo Messi or Andres Iniesta to call on and, while he does have a Pujol, striker Gregory does not share even the spelling of his surname, never mind a family link with Carles. The Barcelona captain, though, would no doubt be proud of the stuff Valenciennes are playing. In fact, prior to last weekend, Barca were the only side in one of Europe's top five leagues to boast a better goals-to-shots ratio than Valenciennes.
They have scored goals. Lots of them, 26 in fact, five more than any other Ligue 1 team, and eight better more than the much-feted Paris Saint-Germain side featuring, among other high-profile recruits, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The three goals they netted in their 3-2 victory at Bastia last weekend to remain fifth, two points off top spot, only helped cement their role as the entertainers of what has proved so far an uncharacteristically uninhibited start to the season. If the French top flight is currently able to boast its highest goal tally at this stage of the campaign for 28 years, Valenciennes - whose last eight games have seen 37 goals in total - have more than chipped in.
"Confidence is a big part of it," said the veteran Pujol, who has recently returned from injury to help his club to their best start in nearly half a century. "We're also trying a lot of things, and it's true they're coming off. Up front, we try to put a little spark into it - one-twos, little triangles - and really let ourselves go. We can see that, with that confidence, we can achieve things."
Given the city's worldwide reputation for lacemaking, it is perhaps no surprise Valenciennes' play should be attractive and intricate. A number of Ligue 1 teams can already bear witness to the fact it can also be devastatingly effective. Marseille's 100% start was brought juddering to a halt with a 4-1 defeat at the Stade du Hainaut while Lorient were thrashed 6-1, leaving the north to head back to Brittany with their tails firmly between their legs.
Though the manner in which sides have been swept aside in Valenciennes is eye-opening, defeat for Ligue 1 teams in Valenciennes is not exactly a new thing. Still unbeaten at the Stade du Hainaut this season, their home record is bettered only by Lyon's and dovetails neatly with their form in recent years whether it be in their new arena, opened last year, or their former abode, the Stade Nungesser.
It has been whenever the cosy confines of home have been left behind, however, that Valenciennes have faltered. The fifth-best home record in Ligue 1 last season contrasted with the league-low tally of just seven points picked up from 19 trips, and last weekend's win at Bastia was only their 17th triumph in 120 away matches since their return to the top flight. It is such chronic travel sickness that has prevented the club finishing higher than tenth since returning to the top flight under Antoine Kombouare for the 2006-07 campaign.
There are signs that, while it has not been entirely cured, the patient may not have quite the same need for the sick bag. Losses at Lyon, Brest, Lille and second division Monaco in the Coupe de la Ligue suggest there is work still to be done, but a point was picked up from a potentially hazardous trip to Toulouse, while the triumph at Bastia was their first in 16 visits, and only the third home game the hosts had lost in 49 fixtures.
It is in the comfort of their own home, however, that the team best expresses its qualities, which are all the more impressive given a quick scan of the squad list would produce very few signs of acknowledgement from all bar the most avid L1 aficionado. Ex-Liverpool forward Anthony Le Tallec, picked up from relegated Auxerre this summer, is the best known, and though he was excellent before injury opened the door again for Pujol to lead the line, it is the diminutive Gael Danic and Foued Kadir who have been the principal architects of success.
The former - Breton-born and once on Rennes' books - has already laid on a league-high six goals this season, and contributed two himself, one of which was a magnificent free-kick that helped do for Marseille. Kadir, a French-born Algerian international whose contract expires this season, has scored five and teed up four. More than their impressive stats, however, it is the duo's complicity with both Le Tallec and Pujol, and the sparkling football it has provoked, that has got people excited.
Headline writers would perhaps be happier still if Gaetan Bong were a central figure, but the centre-back is yet to set the joint alight. Instead, the goal-getters and makers are supported by Mathieu Dossevi, whose brother Thomas was once of Swindon Town, Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez Moreno, who left the club a free agent last summer only to rejoin, and veteran goalkeeper Nicolas Penneteau, a solid enough custodian who frequently finds gainful employment during games given his team-mates' penchant for pushing forward.
That instinct has been instilled by Sanchez, a former striker who had unremarkable spells at Nice, PSG, Saint-Etienne - where he played second fiddle to Roger Milla - and Cannes before swapping dressing room for dug-out. Sacked from his coaching role when Milan Mandaric took over at Nice, Sanchez headed for Japan, where he eventually took charge at Arsene Wenger's former club Nagoya Grampus Eight. Appropriately enough, despite having enjoyed success in Ligue 2 at Tours with the likes of Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud in his team, there were many cries of "Daniel who?" when he took over from Philippe Montanier at Valenciennes.
Sanchez, however, has continued the club's steady upward trajectory and, for the moment, has them playing dreamily, though he is aware that any let-up from his squad will mean a return to reality. "As soon as that happens, you can feel it," he said after seeing his side rest on their laurels after scoring a third to beat Sochaux recently. "You could see the difference between a thorough team, and one which was a little bit relaxed. That's when we become a middle-of-the-road team."
'Middle of the table' is more likely come the season's end, with the squad's lack of strength in depth, their wobbly away record and over-reliance on the likes of Danic and Kadir leaving them at the whim of injury and form. Both fickle mistresses may, of course, prove merciful, raising the prospect of Valenciennes actually going somewhere near Barcelona - if not to the Camp Nou itself - next season.