Valencia respond to emotional week
Given they had lost their last home game 0-5, their main creative player had reportedly turned up badly hungover to training two days before the game, and Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and company were arriving in town, it was perhaps understandable that Valencia's fans were in a wary mood as they took their seats at Mestalla on Sunday evening.
90 minutes later relief was flooding around the ground, after Ernesto Valverde's side had secured a point, and salvaged some pride, with a creditable 1-1 draw with runaway Primera Division leaders. The reprieved Ever Banega had gone some way to making up for his midweek mis-step by scoring his side's goal, and the back-line ripped to shreds by Madrid had shown it could actually defend.
Valencia coach Ernesto Valverde admitted afterwards that the painful memory of a fortnight previously had conditioned his side's approach to the game.
"That was a difficult moment for everyone," Valverde said. "When you are hammered like that, it hurts. The team has reacted well. Today you saw a different Valencia, with lots of effort, pressure, winning the ball back and looking to attack. We are happy with that."
Banega had himself suffered even more recent "difficult moments". Saturday's local sports paper had revealed he had been "in a bad condition" [Spanish for tired and emotional] when arriving 35 minutes late to the club's Paterna training ground the previous morning, and had been sent straight home. 'Banega again' said Superdeporte's cover, with similar incidents which have marred his four years at the club - including a bender on the night of former coach Unai Emery's 39th birthday - detailed inside.
Valencia boss Ernesto Valverde refused to confirm or deny whether Banega had been drunk when asked about the incident on Saturday, but did say the Argentine playmaker would be fined. The player himself apologised to fans via twitter, without specifying what he had done wrong.
That this was enough to keep his place in Valverde's starting line-up was mostly a sign of the lack of other options available. Fernando Gago was sent back to Argentina on loan last week; Valverde's patience finally broken by his lackadaisical attitude in that painful 0-5. Dani Parejo - another with a liking for the vibrant Valencia nightlife - was out with a broken hand, while Sofiane Feghouli was returning via Paris after Algeria's group stage exit from the African Cup of Nations. Sergio Canales and Jonas were on the bench, with neither deemed fit enough to start.
The game began slowly, with each side feeling the other out, and not much really happening. Valencia were understandably mindful of getting caught on the break given what had happened against Madrid, and Barca's passing rhythm was again just slightly off. Defender by trade Victor Ruiz, bypassed by Madrid's Mesut Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo a fortnight ago, looked more comfortable in his deep midfield role, following instructions to stick close to Lionel Messi whenever he dropped deep.
"Victor is a central defender who can play in midfield," Valverde said afterwards. "Messi is not a typical centre forward, who drops deep into that space a lot. We wanted to take precautions."
Such extra discipline was rewarded 33 minutes in. A cleared Valencia corner was returned into the area by Roberto Soldado, and Gerard Pique's weak clearing header fell to Banega ten yards out. The Argentine international had not looked in particularly good nick until that moment, but he took his time and drilled the ball below Valdes.
"It was a difficult situation for Ever with everyone talking," Valverde said, without looking quite ready yet to kiss and make up. "He had an opportunity to redeem himself and he scored a goal."
The game moved up a gear, and the crowd urged their team to press home the advantage. A more confident Valencia pressed and Soldado's mishit volley almost reached Andres Guardado at the back post. But just as the home seemed to be pressing their advantage home, Pedro was bundled to the ground by Joao Pereira in the box and referee Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez pointed to the spot.
Messi ignored the protests from the home players, and the whistles and howls around the stadium, to lash the penalty into top left hand corner. That made it 12 consecutive Primera Division games on the scoresheet for the Argentine. It was also Barca's first - and only - shot on target in the first half.
"We had come from a very tough game [in the Copa Del Rey on Wednesday] at Madrid, and it is possible that effort would have an effect," said stand-in Barca coach Jordi Roura. "In the first half we lacked a bit of intensity."
The second half began with Barca still lacking their usual spark, and Valencia patiently waiting to break. Much of Los Che's better moves came down their left, where Andres Guardado and Aly Cissokho were doing a decent impression of Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu during Unai Emery's time in charge of Valencia, when they had regularly troubled Josep Guardiola's team down that side.
Although Dani Alves does not race forward quite as much under Tito Vilanova, there were still gaps to exploit. Just after the break the overlapping Cissokho crossed and Soldado flashed a header just wide. Soon afterwards Guardado skipped past Alves to tee up Canales - on for Banega - but Catalan keeper Victor Valdes tipped the returning youngster's drive around the post. Another Cissokho drive forward lead to a Tino Costa shot deflected just wide.
Barca gradually started to turn the screw, but centre-backs Adil Rami and Ricardo Costa - so easily ripped apart against Madrid - were holding firm. Former Valencia striker David Villa, on for a muted Fabregas, had just one chance, which he sliced wide. Pedro shot straight down Vicente Guaita's throat - the only real save the keeper, mentioned occasionally as a possible Valdes replacement at Barca, made all game.
The best late opportunity came at other end. With just two minutes remaining Cissokho got down the left again, past the dozing Pique, and crossed. Amid the ensuing scramble the ball fell to Soldado eight yards out, but Valdes sprung superbly from his line to block and preserve the draw.
Roura accepted that the point was not over disappointing for Barca, as it stretched their Primera Division lead over Madrid to 16 points.
"Valencia are a very intense team, who do not let you play," he said. "In the end the result was more or less fair.
The notoriously hard to please Mestalla crowd were also more or less happy at the end, applauding their players warmly from the field. Their coach was happy enough too.
"We are satisfied with the game," said Valverde. "The game was not too open in the first half, maybe a bit more in the second. Either team could have scored at the end. We would have liked to win, but they have players of an extraordinary level."
That reaction was understandable. Considering all that happened recently, Valencia were more than happy with the draw.