Three Points: Valencia end Real Madrid winning streak with 2-1 win
VALENCIA, Spain -- Three talking points from the Mestalla as Valencia end Real Madrid's 22-game winning streak:
1. Isco got away, but Andre Gomes is a great alternative
Taken on paper, the fact that one goal came from a spot kick, the second from a deflection and the third from a corner would suggest that this game wasn't one for the strikers, and that was certainly the case. Instead, the real tale on this huge night came in the middle of the pitch, via two players who have very different experiences of Valencia.
Letting Isco go for a mere 7 million euros in 2011 is a stick Valencia are constantly beaten with, and considering his development in the years since, it is easy to see why. The Andalusian joined the club at the age of 14 and played alongside Paco Alcacer in the youth team, yet a combination of failing to spot his true potential and (more importantly) the desperate need for finances in those days means he is now showing off his talents with Madrid, via Malaga.
In that context, the home support was understandably none too thrilled when he repeatedly spun away from assailants, shielded the ball in tight spaces and dribbled his way into danger areas over the course of the game. While Carlo Ancelotti had chosen a more direct approach in the first half, Isco was the one antidote, adding the pausa Madrid lacked from other players.
Crucially, however, Valencia had an antidote in the form of Andre Gomes -- a man who won't be able to relate to the scenario in which Isco left the club he now plays for. The Portuguese, who was one of Peter Lim's big signings for this season, took part in a personal battle with the former Malaga man to see who could deliver the more productive feints and flicks, and quite often he came off the better of the two. Excellent under pressure, Gomes at one stage had the audacity to flick the ball over Toni Kroos' head and could have scored with a shot that beat Iker Casillas but hit the post.
Gomes' display may not have been rewarded with a goal like Nicolas Otamendi's or Antonio Barragan's, but it was a far better indicator of the progress at Valencia -- a sign that they will no longer lose, but instead add, his class of player. The sight of Isco scrambling to foul his fellow midfielder on a handful of occasions was a nice reflection of the changing times.
2. Ancelotti's tactics were too simplistic
Valencia were the more energetic team in the first 20 minutes, but not the most thorough. That accolade lay with the visitors, who used the ball with one clear purpose in the opening period. Nuno's decision to field three central defenders with wingbacks left an obvious gap to exploit should Pablo Piatti or Barragan let their concentration lapse, and Ancelotti had evidently instructed his team to force the issue.
As easy as it was to spot the gap, so too was it relatively simple to fix. As Nuno adapted to the approach, the Italian failed to do so sufficiently. When the final whistle went, Madrid were ultimately left looking like a team that had failed to find the intricacy some periods of play called for.
In the opening 20 minutes, it was all working like a charm. Madrid were more direct than usual, repeatedly opting for searching long balls into the space behind Piatti where Gareth Bale was having the better of it against the Argentine. A natural target as the fastest player on the pitch, at that point he exploited his sheer velocity to the maximum, dragging Lucas Orban out of position and forcing him into uncomfortable one-on-one situations.
A foul from one such encounter in the 11th minute won the free-kick that preceded Cristiano Ronaldo's opening goal from a penalty, and while Valencia can debate how fair the handball decision that led to the spot-kick was, they couldn't debate Bale getting the better of their defender in the move that led to it.
In the second half things changed. The introduction of Jose Luis Gaya after Piatti limped off meant Bale had less space to work in, and Madrid were forced to search for other options that largely eluded them. Chances were created, but as Ancelotti fumbled, the night became the home team's, which grew into the game while the visitors faded.
3. Excited Mestalla crowd didn't always help Valencia
Valencia went to great pains to try to create a hostile atmosphere in the buildup to the game, and they were granted their wish. Yet it didn't always help the home team.
From kickoff, the Mestalla was a cauldron, supporters greeting their idols with a huge mosaic reading "Yes We Can," but it was the greeting Real Madrid were given that really added to the tension. A guard of honour from Valencia recognised Madrid's recent Club World Cup win as Los Blancos walked on to the pitch, and that made the sold-out crowd more determined to contest every decision like it was the last.
It wasn't necessarily a good thing. The huge weight of expectation in the air seemed to make Valencia anxious in the first 45 minutes, and they often dove into clumsy challenges that tempted punishment from referee Jesus Gil Manzano. He obliged with seven yellow cards in the opening period, five of which were for the home side.
The rashness with which the occasion was contested conjured up memories of a tight 1-0 loss to Barcelona at this stadium in December -- another night where Los Che struggled to slow things down and were too one-paced. That fixture saw three-quarters of Valencia's back four go into the book.
Atletico Madrid have proved that there is gold dust to be extracted from cutting through La Liga's sometimes flat atmospheres by creating a siege mentality, but the nervousness that Valencia showed suggests a touch of patience from the Mestalla could also be useful. That may sound ludicrous after this crowd spurred its side on to end a 22-game winning streak from the Champions League holders, but at times it tempted fate.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.