Valencia manager Marcelino Garcia Toral turned to the bench at Mestalla, where his subs and his staff were sitting happily, and a grin shot across his face. “You see what a capricious son of a b—- football is?” he said.
To his left, Ezequiel Garay looked a little bemused, which they all were. But while the rest were bemused by what they had just seen, Garay was momentarily bemused by what he had just heard. “Why?” he asked.
Why?! Marcelino pointed towards the pitch, where Luciano Vietto had just scored his third goal of the night. Oh, yeah, right. That.
Vietto scored a hat-trick in the Cop del Rey against Formentera; now he had scored a hat-trick in the Copa del Rey against Las Palmas too. But here’s the thing: that was December 2016 and this was January 2018, at a whole new club. Over a year had passed between those two games and in the meantime, he hadn’t scored a single goal. For the entirety of 2017 there had been nothing. Nada. Nada de nada. Nothing at Sevilla, nothing at Atletico either. And yet here he was, in his first start for Valencia, and not only had he scored again, he had only gone and scored a hat-trick.
At the end of the game, standing pitch-side, a microphone pointed his way, Vietto looked at the floor a little awkwardly, almost embarrassed. He let out a little laugh, then he shrugged. “If you tell people [what happened]… it’s hard to explain,” he said. Afterwards, Marcelino repeated much the same line as he had offered on the bench, only publicly this time, and a little more polite. “That’s football,” he said. “I’m happy for him,” the Valencia manager continued. There are things that are hard to explain.”
Which is not to say that they didn’t try, and the conclusion many drew was that Marcelino is the answer, that the Valencia manager is be good for him.
That, certainly, is the hope… and the expectation. This is a coach who has made much of players with something to prove, footballers who had not always been able to produce their best and on whom many had given up, players who had not always been given the opportunities they craved: Simone Zaza, Dani Parejo, Jose Gaya and Rodrigo are among the many that pay testament to his touch. And besides, when Vietto played under him at Villarreal, he scored 20 goals, including the winner at the Vicente Calderon.
On Tuesday night, Vietto said: “I went to get back to the level I had at Villarreal… that’s the player I am.”
The talent is there, that’s for sure. There was a reason that Diego Simeone, who suffered him that day he scored at the Calderon, chose to sign him from Villarreal. At €20 million, it appeared like a good deal. “He has extraordinary qualities,” said Simeone. He even likened him to David Villa, “a second striker, good in attacking combinations, who scores goals.” The problem was that at Atletico, unlike at Villarreal, Vietto didn’t. It wasn’t the same without Marcelino, or so it now seems.
In his first season Vietto scored one in the league, one in the cup and one in Europe. At Sevilla on loan the season after, he scored a total of 10, none of them after the turn of the year. He returned to Atletico and didn’t score any more then either.
But here’s the thing: there was another reason that Simeone signed him.
“Marcelino is a manager who gets the best out of me,” Vietto had said when he made his debut for Valencia at the weekend, a brief appearance as a sub that promised more. He had resisted Atletico’s attempts to sell him to Sporting Lisbon, preferring to be reunited with his former coach, a man who reaches him, understands him and looks after him. Just days later, that appeared vindicated and yet it was no guarantee.
After all, this is what he said when he signed for Atlético: “The manager knows what I can offer and he has a way of getting the best out of people.” Sounds familiar, eh?
It sounded reasonable enough, too. On his first day, Vietto was sick and they laughed at him, pushing him ever harder. Welcome to Atletico, kid.
It was preseason at the club’s Cerro de Espino training ground and it was hard and relentless, slightly sadistic too. But, he was entitled to think, it was also going to be good for him. Simeone was entitled to think it would be good for him too. Remember: Vietto had “extraordinary qualities.” The right qualities, Simeone said. And Marcelino was not the only one who believed in him, who could each him.
When Vietto said his manager knew him, it was no empty platitude. He was only 21 when he signed but Simeone genuinely did know him well: he had given him his debut at Racing Avellaneda as a 17-year-old. He saw something in him, something good, something special. With hindsight it is easy to say that he never looked like an Atletico player — tough, uncompromising, athletic, decisive — and it is easy too to remember those early days, the suffering at Cerro del Espino and see the flaws right there, right at the start. But Simeone thought it can work, and if anyone understands the way his team works, it is him.
It never quite happened, of course; the ball hardly ever wanted to go in, and while there appear to be obvious reasons, while it’s simple enough to say now that he never looked like an Atletico player (and is certainly no Diego Costa), sometimes football isn’t so easily explained. It is not so easily digested, either. For Simeone, there was something personal in it. That was why it hurt him so much to admit defeat and let go.
“I love Luciano as a person and he is an extraordinary player,” said Simeone. “It upsets me to see him go; he played well but he didn’t score the goals to go with his play at a team that doesn’t wait [for anyone]. I hope he goes to a competitive club and I wish him the best.”
If that wish was genuine, it was granted. A debut at Mestalla, three goals.
A new start could be a new life and that’s good for Valencia too: they have been all too aware that they needed greater strength in depth, other players who can contribute and on Tuesday, Vietto did. He will play now, opportunities offered where they were once denied. A second chance. “Maybe he came here with a touch of anxiety to score a goal. This will be good for his confidence,” said Marcelino.
There didn’t seem to be very much wrong with his confidence when he scored an astonishing third goal, hitting the ball over the goalkeeper from only a short way inside the Las Palmas half, curling it into the top corner from 50 yards away. “You see that very rarely,” said Marcelino. He meant a goal like that but when it comes to Vietto, he could just as well have been talking about a goal at all. But that was then and this is now. 2017 is gone, 2018 is here. And so, at last, here at Valencia, is Vietto. Back with Marcelino, the man who said it best: football’s a capricious son of a b—- sometimes.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.