Gary Neville earns first La Liga win with Valencia, but plenty of work remains
VALENCIA, Spain -- Three thoughts from the Estadio Mestalla as Valencia beat Espanyol 2-1 in Saturday evening's La Liga clash.
1. Neville gets his first La Liga win
Gary Neville finally has his first La Liga win as Valencia coach, 10 games and two months into his reign, as goals from Alvaro Negredo and Denis Cheryshev brought a badly needed victory, which should ease the pressure for at least a while on the former Manchester United defender.
Things did not seem to be going too well when, after a goalless first half between two teams lacking in confidence, Espanyol defender Oscar Duarte headed his side in front just seven minutes into the second half.
Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves, returned to the team after nine months' injury absence, was at fault for Duarte's goal. But without the Brazilian keeper, it could have been much worse for Neville's side -- as he made two point-blank stops in either half to keep his team in the game.
For the 10th time in Neville's 10 La Liga games, Valencia were 1-0 down. The former Manchester United defender sent on Negredo to partner Paco Alcacer up top, and 11 minutes later the veteran striker had the equaliser. It came with a stroke of good fortune as his shot deflected into the net after an excellent driving run from right-back Joao Cancelo.
Duarte had another free header from a corner -- but missed this time -- and seconds later Valencia were ahead. Cancelo was involved again down the right wing, with the cross being headed to the net by a diving Cheryshev at the back post.
Before the match, Neville denied that this was a "must-win" game for him, but he must have breathed a huge sigh of relief as he finally got that first victory.
2. Mestalla sticks with the team
Neville has been harshly criticised by a number of ex-Valencia players, including 2002 and 2004 La Liga winners David Albelda and Santi Canizares, pushing the club's official former footballers association to hold an event earlier this week. "The club is not yet dead yet," the association's president Fernando Giner said in a perhaps unfortunate turn of phrase.
Supporters groups were also organised via social media to cheer the team bus on arrival for tonight's game, and supportive local reporters talked about building an "historic" atmosphere inside the ground during the game. A banner across the stadium's Curva Nord pregame read: "For your colours, for your badge, for your fans #valenciaalwaysraiseup."
After only 16,400 showed up for Wednesday's 1-1 confirmation of the Copa del Rey exit to Barcelona, the 55,000-seater Mestalla was almost full for tonight's game, and there was plenty of noisy support early as Valencia tried a high-tempo start. There were gasps as Dani Parejo's 25-yard free kick was heading for top corner, but the recalled Pau Lopez made a decent flying save.
Pretty soon though the energy drained, both on and off the pitch.
Around the half-hour mark Alcacer sent a pretty wild shot well wide, as frustration was building in the stands. The ultras sang on the Curva Nord for the team to dig in, but it was ideas and imagination their team was missing, not effort. Soon afterward Parejo took possession at midfield, took a touch, looked around, and with nothing on ahead of him, had no option but to pass sideways. There were whistles as the teams walked off at half-time.
Duarte's opener on 52 minutes was greeted with stunned silence, and then the home fans did try and raise their side. There were some shrieks of frustration but also shouts of support as their team tried once again to come from behind. And there was a roar of relief when Negredo equalised. Joy was then unbounded when Real Madrid loanee Cheryshev finally became the first player to put Neville's Valencia ahead in a La Liga game.
Fans whose team have been letting them down lately did everything to keep up their end of the bargain, and on the final whistle they eventually had a first home win since October to celebrate.
3. One win does not an upturn make
The only La Liga team in worse form recently than Valencia were Espanyol, who had taken just two points from their past six games and had won just one [the first] of their nine games since Constantin Galca was appointed coach late last year.
The similarities didn't end there -- with both clubs having East Asian owners whose "projects" are being questioned by local fans and pundits. "Aspirin or cyanide for two Asian projects," said the preview in AS on Saturday morning. "Only one can remain" wrote Marca, alluding to either Neville or Galca being likely for the chop should their team lose.
The visitors did at least have a simple plan, and they stuck to it pretty well. Caicedo was a regular danger at centre-forward, and youngster Marcos Asensio, also on loan from Real Madrid, regularly beat new Valencia left-back Guilherme Siqueira with his driving runs on the ball.
Teams know they don't have to do too much against Neville's Valencia side, just sit tight and wait for them to self-destruct. Long straight balls down the middle were often enough to cause panic in the Los Che defence -- who often relied on Alves to bail them out.
Even after Valencia had finally got ahead in a La Liga game, there were some nervous moments at the back, with Asensio again shining, Alves again being called into action, and substitute Gerard Moreno shooting just wide from eight yards.
This time the fortune was with Neville's side, but he still has plenty of work to do.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan