Real Madrid give mixed performance in thrilling draw at Valencia
VALENCIA, Spain -- Three things from the Estadio Mestalla as Gary Neville's Valencia played to a 2-2 draw with Rafa Benitez's Real Madrid in Sunday night's La Liga thriller.
1. Mixed bag again from Benitez's men
Sunday evening's meeting of former Manchester United and Liverpool figures Gary Neville and Rafa Benitez, now coaching La Liga sides Valencia and Madrid, respectively, brought plenty of Premier League excitement.
Fans of both sides saw positives to take from the game, but the 2-2 result does not really help Madrid keep pace with La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. Neither does a point against a team who played with 10 men for 22 minutes help Neville's Valencia in their bid to recover from a poor start to the season and climb the table.
Although Madrid battled well while a man down, Benitez is likely to again be under the microscope due to his tactical changes. History appeared to be repeating itself as Madrid went ahead early through a superb Karim Benzema goal but then appeared to sit back and let the opponents into the game -- just as they had at Atletico Madrid and Celta Vigo earlier in the season.
With Valencia's full-backs and wide players regularly finding space down the wings as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale watched, the home side pinned Madrid back. Joao Cancelo and Andre Gomes missed more than decent opportunities before the latter was hauled down by Pepe inside the area just before halftime.
Former Madrid youth teamer Dani Parejo rolled in the penalty, and the teams went to the break all square -- with Benitez's side not managing another shot on target between Benzema's goal and Parejo's equalizer.
Madrid pushed on at the start of the second half, but there wasn't much pattern to their attacking play: Centre-forward Benzema was spotted winning the ball back on halfway; centre-back Pepe charged forward in open play. The visiting team's plan was not altogether clear.
Benitez's first substitution was to remove goal-scorer Benzema and send on hard-working winger Lucas Vazquez, which left fan and pundit favourites James Rodriguez and Isco on the bench. That at least helped balance the team after midfielder Mateo Kovacic was red carded for a lunge on Cancelo -- just after Ronaldo had gone down sprawling and claiming a penalty.
Replays suggested young referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez, just 32, seemed to get both difficult decisions spot on. On recent form, it would be no surprise if Benitez -- and allies of club president Florentino Perez in the local press -- criticized the officials and talked again of a "campaign" against them.
But this was yet another mixed bag of a performance from Benitez's side, and blaming external, supposed enemies is not going to fix that.
2. BBC create a classic goal
Real Madrid's opening goal really was a thing of beauty, as the team's BBC -- Benzema, Bale and Cristiano -- strikeforce linked up superbly to cut open the Valencia defence.
When shaky Valencia centre-back Aymen Abdennour's misplaced clearance fell to Benzema 30 yards out, the home team's defense still looked well set. But the Frenchman quickly moved the ball sideways to Bale, whose slick back flick forward found Ronaldo inside the box. The Portuguese unselfishly laid the ball back for Benzema to calmly slide an unstoppable low shot to the net from the edge of the box.
Benzema had a difficult autumn off the pitch, but his well-publicized legal issues involving Les Bleus teammate Mathieu Valbuena don't appear to be weighing him down much. He has 16 goals in 17 games for Madrid last season, including nine in his past six club outings, the best run of the 28-year-old's professional career.
Benzema was also at the heart of Madrid's best play at the start of the second half, as he waltzed into the box and pulled back for Marcelo to shoot from just 6 yards out -- only for Valencia left-back Lucas Orban to block. The former Lyon man's mobility and intelligence were again involved in most of his team's best moves, with Ronaldo peripheral apart from his assist.
Bale was at least running hard all game -- and the former Spurs man showed his athleticism and quality in excellently heading in Toni Kroos' late free kick for what at the time seemed likely to be the winner.
3. Valencia could have nicked a win
The performance and spirit shown from Valencia are positives for Neville, who said this week that he was planning to stay well past end of his current contract in June, having already rented a house for his family and found a school for his children.
But the rookie coach on a short-term contract has just three points from his first four games in charge, and Valencia lie a full 13 points off fourth-placed Villarreal and the last Champions League qualification spot.
After trying a 3-5-2 in the midweek 1-0 defeat at Villarreal, the until recently TV pundit sent out a more familiar 4-3-3 shape on Sunday. His team's early problems were in defence, where Abdennour, whistled after a shocker in the 2-2 draw at home to Getafe before Christmas, was again poor.
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Better news for Valencia was the display from Andre Gomes. The young Portugal international was behind most of his side's best work: His driving run for the penalty just before halftime was not his first such intervention, while a swerving, long-range shot almost caught out Keylor Navas with the game 1-1.
After Kovacic was sent off, Neville kept switching things, and his move to bring on Rodrigo for Orban -- meaning Cancelo went from right-wing to left-back -- paid off. After what seemed like a hammerblow with Bale's header for 2-1, Valencia went right to the other end and were level within a minute, after Rodrigo headed back for Alcacer to coolly nod home.
It could have been even better for the home side in injury time, when another substitute, Alvaro Negredo, was on goal, but the former Man City striker blew his one-on-one with Navas. A draw was probably a fair result -- even if it left nobody happy at the end.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.