Honours even between 'best of the rest'
It was honours even on a damp Easter Sunday at a damp Estadio Vicente Calderon as the traditional La Liga 'best of the rest' clash between Atletico Madrid and Valencia ended 1-1 and suggested the current 15-point gap between them in the table does not reflect their respective strengths.
A draw was probably a fair result in a game which both sides had their claims to win, but neither really did enough to deserve the three points. After a helter-skelter opening in which Jonas put the visitors ahead and Radamel Falcao quickly equalised, the two teams alternated spells of dominance and both keepers made some fine saves, but in the end neither team really merited the spoils.
Not that that stopped both coaches staking a claim for the higher ground afterwards.
"Looking at Atletico's results here all season, you can say the point is good," Valencia boss Ernesto Valverde said afterwards. "But considering how we played in the first half, we think we could have won here."
Pushed by reporters in the press room to criticise referee Javier Estrada Fernandez, who had angered the Calderon crowd throughout, Colchoneros coach Diego Simeone slipped into his limited English.
"I try not to talk about referees, but people can look at the images as they always do," Simeone said. "Apart from that I have no comment."
Recent seasons have seen plenty of words - often heated - between the two camps, as each see themselves as La Liga's natural third team. The similarities run deep, with both clubs heavily in debt, both hoping to move ground soon and both desperate for Champions League cash to pay off creditors and keep [at least some of] their best players.
Valencia have generally had the better of it in recent times, unbeaten against the Rojiblancos in La Liga since 2010 and third in the table each of those seasons. That looks unlikely this term, as even though they lost 2-0 at Mestalla in November, Simeone's side went into the game three places and a full 15 points ahead in the Primera Division standings. Another win here and their position as 'best of the rest' would be confirmed.
That was the expectation among the home fans filing through the rain to the Calderon pre-game. Although Atletico had lost their last home game - 1-0 to Real Sociedad - they had won all of their first 13. The international break had also been kind to Atletico, who fielded a first choice XI, except for youth-teamer Javier Manquillo, 18, at right-back in place of the suspended Juanfran Torres.
A rash of suspensions and injuries meant the visitors' starting side was less familiar, with Jeremy Mathieu again pressed into service as an emergency centre-half, and Nelson Valdez up front with Roberto Soldado out with an ankle injury.
Pundits beforehand had expected a close game with a clash of styles between Valverde's liking to control games through possession, and Simeone's preference for sitting deep, keeping things tight and countering. But thoughts of a tight tactical affair seemed misplaced when Valencia scored in pretty much their first attack. Jonas drifted in from his spot on the left wing and got ahead of Atletico centre-back Miranda to lash home from Joao Pereira's right-wing cross.
The crowd were still digesting that when Atletico equalised. Arda Turan's simple lifted pass sprung Valencias offside trap and Falcao was free to volley in first time from close range and end his three game barren patch. The visitors' out of position left sided defensive pair of Mathieu and Andres Guardado appeared to be in for a tough evening.
However, instead the large number of ball players - by accident or design - in the Valencia team saw them take control of the game. Dani Parejo, better known in the past as a flaky attacking midfielder, showed he is growing into a deeper holding midfield role under Valverde, linking well with Jonas and Ever Banega, ensuring his side kept possession and built pressure on the home defence. Parejo also skimmed the crossbar with a superbly struck 25-yard free kick as Valencia dominated.
"The first half Valencia played very well, they have a squad with a lot of talent," admitted Simeone. "We had some luck."
Atletico's chances of getting hold of the ball was not helped when Arda Turan limped off after coming off worse in a clash with Joao Pereira. Replacement Raul Garcia misplaced his first pass straight out of play, and the waves of attacks kept going the other way. Thibaut Courtois' double save from Pablo Piatti and Jonas was further evidence of why Atletico reportedly want to include making his loan from Chelsea permanent in any deal which sends Falcao to Stamford Bridge.
"The first half was ours, we dominated the play and pinned them back," Valverde said. "But were not able to take advantage and convert that into more goals."
The crowd's angry whistling of referee Estrada Fernandez at the break was more a sign of their own displeasure at how things were going than the official's poor decision making. Simeone also presumably had some choice words for his players, and was possibly also egged on by the Frente Altetico's chants for their players to "show some balls" as the home side worked their way into the game after the break.
Valencia keeper Diego Alves had to look sharp to smother when Diego Costa tried to reach Falcao's dinked pass and then flapped at a couple of driven Koke corners. In one ensuing scramble Jonas was lucky to get away with an apparent handball, but again Estrada Fernandez ignored the howls from the stands.
Valverde reacted with a couple of quick changes. Cissokho came on for the pretty ineffective Valdez, with Guardado and Jonas pushed forward. Then Sergio Canales replaced Ever Banega, who had faded after an influential first half. The tweaks worked and Valencia's midfield was able to relieve the pressure from their defence.
"I thought the team was a little bit unbalanced, and we were losing the ball a bit much in midfield," the Extremaduran coach said. "So the idea was to strengthen things in there."
Simeone agreed that the changes had helped stall his side's revival.
"The second half was much closer to the game we wanted to play to be able to win," he said. "Their change showed that we were doing better."
As the final 20 minutes then became increasingly crappy and bad tempered, there was little action at either end, and time to reflect on the teams' respective failings. We could see just why Simeone is reportedly so keen to resign Brazilian playmaker Diego for next season's presumed European campaign, and also why Valencia struggle for goals away from home, especially when Soldado is absent.
Atletico will need more ideas and invention in the Champions League, while Valencia could be in deep trouble if they do not qualify and their top scorer has to be sold.
In the end, both teams maybe not be overly disappointed with the draw, which keeps Atletico right up with city rivals Real Madrid, and helps Valencia's drive for fourth. Simeone said he was happy to have maintained the 15-point advantage over a team he suggested had a better squad than his own.
"Keeping the gap with the teams who are coming up behind us is important," the Argentine said. "If we cannot win, then the next best thing is a draw. We have done very well with what we have, we are proud of our season so far."
Valverde was similarly philosophical when asked why his side were so far behind Atletico in the table, considering they had matched them over the 90 minutes.
"La Liga is not just one game, it is many games," he said. "We were able to take them on as equals in the game, but the reality of the league you can see in the table."
The two coaches' broader perspectives made sense. No matter what happened on the night, they were both still going to be hundreds of millions of euros in debt, unsure about their future stadia and in desperate need of Champions League cash. Atletico remain on track for the promised land, while Valencia will likely join them there next season if they keep playing like this.