What a difference a year can make. Last year this time, Valencia Club de Fútbol was a club in football hell. A debt-ridden mess filled with famous castoffs with little on field direction or off-field stability.

Stability so questionable that controversial super agent, Jorge Mendes, essentially became a de facto director of football as several of his clients, players and coaches alike, passed through the Mestalla. All thanks to his relationships with owner, Peter Lim, who seemed just as interested in giving his friends – including the unmitigated disaster that was Gary Neville – opportunities as he was clearing the team’s nine-figure financial deficit.

After a 12th placed finish last season, many of those issues remain. But, against all expectation, the on-field product from Valencia this campaign has been significantly better. With six wins and three draws in their first nine games and on the back of a 4-0 drubbing of Sevilla on Saturday, only Barcelona sits ahead of Los Murcielagos in the table. Having taken points off defending league champs Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and winning 3-2 at Champions League chasing Real Sociedad, Valencia’s showing they’re not small team bullies either.

The on-field turnaround can be credited to two factors. The first being a series of seemingly uninspiring moves since January that have reaped huge benefits. There’s Geoffrey Kondogbia, who has gone from an Inter Milan flop infamous for a highly comical own goal in preseason to showing some semblance of the ability he offered up at Sevilla. His former teammate at Inter, Jeison Murillo and former Arsenal defender, Gabriel Paulista, have helped stabilise a back line that gave up 65 goals last season. While the addition of promising 20-year-old Portuguese winger, Gonçalo Guedes, on loan from PSG has proved essential as he has racked up three goals and five assists already.

And then, there’s Simone Zaza. The man who’s daftness in front of goal between difficult stints at Juventus and West Ham was as long as his absurd penalty run-up during Italy’s quarterfinal defeat to Germany at Euro 2016. The butt of jokes ever since last summer, the 26-year-old has been kicking butt in Spain since his January arrival. Notching a respectable six goals in 20 league games last term, Zaza has been in imperious form in this one, netting eight times in Valencia’s nine games. He even won La Liga Player of the Month for September for his efforts.

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Simone Zaza and Gonzalo Guedes of Valencia CF celebrates after scoring a goal during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and Sevilla FC at Estadio Mestalla, on october 21, 2017 in Valencia, Spain. (Photo by Maria Jose Segovia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Already three goals shy of his career high back in his Sassuolo days, Zaza looks motivated to prove his doubters wrong. He doesn’t do much in terms of build up play, but his movement and new-found precision in front of goal suggests the Italian may have finally have found his settling ground.