Phil Ball: Neville's Valencia challenge

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Neville enjoyed Valencia's 1-1 draw with Barcelona from the stands while Real Madrid cursed their King's Cup luck.

Plenty to talk about this week, although most of the juicy stuff has taken place off the pitch. The Valencia and Barcelona match always looked like an attractive prospect, despite Valencia’s inconsistency this season, but the departure last week of Nuno Espirito Santo – the chronicle of a sacking foretold – paved the way for the ex-Manchester United defender Gary Neville to come and try his luck in Spain and indeed, in management. Neville has been prominent in media circles since Sky Sports took him on as a punter some four years ago, and the general view is that he has been impressive. It’s interesting that nowadays, performances in such contexts can win ex-players high-profile jobs in coaching, as long as they’re qualified, of course. In the past, TV punditry was seen as a retirement haven for ex-players reluctant or unable to take up coaching. Nevertheless, Neville is a respected ex-player, and has worked as Number Two to the England coach. He is part-owner of Salford FC along with some of his ex-mates from United, but the fact is a significant one. Salford, in the English Northern Premier (three divisions below the professional league) are also part-owned by Peter Lim, the man who now presides over Valencia.

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Neville’s sibling Phil, of course, was already in situ, working as Nuno’s deputy, but he will stay on as his elder brother’s assistant – certainly a first in Spanish football. They already seem to be trying to avoid the David Moyes syndrome (surrounding yourself exclusively with English speakers) and so ex-midfielder Miguel Angel Angulo stays on as coaching assistant and one suspects as interpreter. The visit of Barcelona looked like a baptism of fire for Neville, but wisely he chose to take a back seat (up in the stands) and delegated the day’s job to Voro (Salvador Gonzalez). Poor Voro must have smiled wryly, since eight fairly regular players were injured and two suspended. There was no Diego Alves, Antonio Barragan, Shkodran Mustafi or Sofiane Feghouli, and poor Ruben Vezo, normally a central defender, moved over to full-back to try to cope with Neymar. Barcelona, of course, arrived on the crest of yet another wave, fresh from slaughtering poor Villanovense 6-1 in the King’s Cup with a team of reserves. However, whatever Valencia lacked in manpower, they made up for in enthusiasm, with a new sense of optimism rolling down the steep-sides of the Mestalla, always an imposing ground for visitors, even though the club is desperately trying to get rid of it (nobody wants to buy it) in order to finance the completion of their new, half-built stadium which will theoretically be called the Nou Mestalla – if it ever comes to pass.

Can Gary Neville be a hit in Spain?

Oddly enough, despite the fans’ impatience and dislike of the previous manager, Valencia had not lost at home in 18 matches, and can still progress to the next stage of the Champions League if they defeat Lyon at home on Wednesday and Gent fail to beat Zenit Saint Petersburg. What a debut that would be for Neville, and as long as the players die with their boots on, the Englishman has a guaranteed emotive beginning to his coaching career. It should be interesting, to say the least. Meanwhile, they can bask in the fact that they stopped the Barcelona machine from registering yet another win, courtesy of the excellent Paco Alcacer and an equalising goal by Santi Mina, five minutes from the end. Luis Suarez (who else?) had put Barcelona in front with a goal that had a whiff of offside about it, but he certainly finished it with aplomb. They should really have scored three or four more but even the gods can nod, and their unusual profligacy in front of goal allowed Valencia to restore the smiles to their supporters’ faces.

Is Neville a good idea? There’s a temptation at present to assume that any English coach will be a disaster abroad, following on from the latest episode with David Moyes. But Neville seems to be cut from a different cloth. He’s also younger, has it all to prove, and seems to have understood that to succeed, he must learn the language and try to understand the culture – not just of Valencia but of La Liga. Moyes spent his year in Spain pronouncing his bafflement at everything – and in many ways he was right – but as the Spanish say ‘Es lo que hay’ (That’s the way it is). You can’t fight it. You have to go with its flow. Neville looks like he might be able to do that, and also bring his own contribution to the cause. The image of British coaches is in need of a boost. Will Gary be the man?

The other talking point, in case you’ve been hiding in a bunker for the last week, was Real Madrid’s eventful King’s Cup visit to Cadiz last Wednesday, in which the white giants defeated their Second Division ‘B’ opponents 3-1. Interestingly, the opening goal was scored after two minutes, a fantastic goal from the Russian Denis Cheryshev, a name now destined to live for ever in Madrid’s black-book folklore. It would have been difficult to predict, as James curled a perfect angled ball to Cheryshev, just inside the area – the pass so perfect no defender had time to react – that the Russian’s splendid finish, controlling the ball in an instant and rifling a low shot past the Cadiz keeper, would be the counterpoint to a torrid evening, and an even more torrid week for the club. Cheryshev, of course, was ineligible to play, due to a yellow card picked up when on loan to Villarreal last season, but nobody at Real Madrid seemed to know, not even the player himself. The news filtered through during the first half, first on the Cope Radio Station and then on Twitter, after a member of the public had actually realised that Cheryshev shouldn’t have been on the park. It couldn’t have happened in a worse place, since the Cadiz fans, famous for their humour, began to chant in the style of the ‘Chirigota’ – a sardonic type of folk song sung at the local festival. ‘Benitez look at your twitter’/’Benitez bring on De Gea’ were chorused by the home fans, who immediately sensed that whatever the score, they would be going through to the next round.

Indeed, after Cadiz formally reported their opponents after the game, Madrid were officially kicked out of the competition on Friday evening, pending their inevitable appeal. Instead of taking it on the chin and beginning a post-mortem into their farcical inability to keep a record of the sanctions carried by their players, the world’s richest club maintains it has done nothing wrong.  Last season Osasuna were similarly kicked out of the competition, and went with a whimper but not a bang. Real Madrid are convinced that they are in the right because Cheryshev was not ‘informed’ of the ban (as if the postman were supposed to personally hand the bans to every suspended player in Spain). The problem is that Villarreal were indeed informed, but simply didn’t pass the information to Madrid. Why should they? There is no rule that stipulates this. And so, like the (in)famous late fax from Manchester United, Real Madrid wish the rules to be re-written, and to be restored to the competition, which is always a nice little earner for them. This is unlikely to happen and Real Madrid are left to explain why, among the 20 clubs in the top flight, they are the only owners whose delegate (undoubtedly the best paid) does not attend to these matters. Indeed, Florentino Perez, when asked, was unable to specify who was responsible. Thus do all dictators eventually fall – the victims of their own inability to delegate and of the mistrust in others that underlies their own defective behaviour. 

The good thing for Madrid was that they faced Getafe at home, a side who have only managed a single point on their travels this season. The 4-1 stroll offered some respite from the week’s events, with Karim Benzema scoring a couple of self-help goals to reduce the distance from Barcelona to four points, although Atletico Madrid remain only two points behind the leaders, courtesy of their 2-0 win at Granada. Check out Antoine Griezmann’s goal. Sensational.

Real Madrid, already through, may find further comfort in this week’s Champions League game at home to Malmo, whilst Atletico will want to win in Benfica to finish top in the group. Valencia, as mentioned, must win, but Sevilla cannot progress. Three out of four, however, would continue to show La Liga in a good light.

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