Valencia know to take nothing for granted as they face Chelsea on Wednesday. They know much has changed since the middle of September when they took a 1-0 victory from Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea have got N’Golo Kante back while the Spanish are missing midfielders Geoffrey Kondogbia and Francis Coquelin. Frank Lampard’s team are now in the top four while Valencia are down in 10th.
But there is one thing that has definitely improved for Valencia – their Uruguayan centre-forward Maxi Gomez has found his feet.
Maxi Gomez is the man looking to damage Chelsea’s Champions League hopes for Valencia
Gomez joined Valencia in the summer for just £13m, rejecting a host of Premier League clubs
GOMEZ STATS 19/20
Minutes per goal: 189
Minutes played: 1,136
The man tipped to be Luis Suarez’ long-term replacement with the national team, was still getting over his move last summer, picking Valencia ahead of West Ham.
He started on the bench at the Bridge and had not yet scored for his new team. He has scored six goals since then and is ready to put in the kind of performance against the Europe League holders that will make his boy-hood hero proud.
‘It was only two years ago that I was playing the Champions league on the PlayStation,’ Maxi says. ‘And whenever I played on the PlayStation, I played with Suarez. I wanted him in my team.
‘He was my idol from a very young age. I feel very lucky to have since been able to be on the pitch with him.
‘When I came to Spain, playing for Celta Vigo, he sent me a message. I never expected that. He would write to me when I scored to congratulate me, that makes me feel very proud.’
The 23-year-old forward is a different player to his compatriot – more a target man finisher. There isn’t that manic mobility that Suarez had to his game at the same age. But a Uruguayan forward is still a Uruguayan forward.
Gomez caught the eye when playing for Celta Vigo, scoring 31 goals in 75 appearances
He has also learned from the very best on international duty, playing with his ‘idol’ Luis Suarez
‘There are only three million of us,’ he says. ‘But there are players everywhere. You lift up a rock in Uruguay and there’ll be a footballer under it. Ten boys are born and nine want to play football; that’s where that fighting spirit comes from. You have that from a very young age. I started playing at, three, four-years old.
‘I loved watching Suarez play in England. That year Liverpool almost won the league what he did was brutal. He scored all sorts of goals that season, every ball he touched went in. There were strong teams in that league – Chelsea, United, City – but I would watch him and think: “what a beast he is”. He inspired everyone. He’s a fantastic player.
‘You hear people say he’s a b*****d on the pitch, dirty, but that’s his football and he inspires his team-mates, the fans, everyone. And off it, he’s such a good person – a 10 out of 10. Learning from him, and [Edinson] Cavani in the national team is incredible.’
Almost 10-years Maxi’s senior, Suarez will soon pass the baton to the Valencia forward. Maxi believes he is ready for that challenge and a big performance against Chelsea will demonstrate that. They almost became a local rival in the summer when he considered – although not too seriously it seems – the possibility of moving to West Ham.
‘There was a lot of talk of lots of clubs in the summer,’ he say. ‘There was talk of Barcelona, of England too, but I was relaxed.
‘I left it in the hands of my sister, my family. They were the ones who handled it all with my agents. There was a lot of talk of West Ham, which is a big club in England. But the truth is that when I found out about Valencia, I didn’t hesitate: because of the language, the league, the club, it’s very big, and I am glad I made the decision to come here.’
The 23-year-old has scored six goals in 13 appearances for Valencia since arriving in July
Gomez roars with delight after scoring the opener in Valencia’s defeat by Real Betis last week
When he says he was relaxed he means it. ‘I had a bit of holiday,’ he says of the days when the deal with Valencia was being finalised.
‘It was after I had been with the national team. We don’t get a lot of holiday and when I am in Uruguay I like to get out into the countryside, ride horses, fish, hunt, camp, head-off to the mountains. They called me, and called me, but they couldn’t get hold of me because I didn’t have a signal.’
Things might move slow for Maxi when he’s back home but his career is moving quickly.
‘When I was a kid I watched loads of Champions League games,’ he says. ‘They were at 3.45 in the afternoon so I would watch them and then go to train with my club in Paysandu. It’s a competition that is followed with a lot of passion there.’
They will be following him on Wednesday. A win for Valencia would take them through. Suarez and Cavani could well be waiting in the later rounds. Chelsea can also go through with a win and Gomez knows their quality.
‘We know what Chelsea are. A big club with a lot of history but we come at this with optimism and we beat them at their stadium, it’s not easy to do that. Hopefully our supporters will really back us and we can get three points.
‘In the first game their fans really got behind them, it’s a tight stadium and they were very close to the pitch. It was hard there, and it will be hard again.’