Sunday evening’s clash of two former Premier League giants was great entertainment, although new Valencia coach Gary Neville seemed to enjoy it a lot more than under-fire Real Madrid boss Rafa Benitez.
“Rafa, you gave us the best years of our lives,” said a banner across Mestalla’s Curva Nord early in the game, recalling the two La Liga titles and UEFA Cup triumph during Benitez’s three years in charge of Valencia just over a decade ago. However, after an incident packed 2-2 draw, the 55-year-old looked weighed down by a tough first half of the season in charge of Madrid and few believed his postmatch claims that he was happy with how his side had controlled the game.
Benitez remains in limbo, with no sign yet of club president Florentino Perez wielding the axe, but also no evidence that Madrid’s players are on the same wavelength as their coach.
Yet, despite his team now being 13 points off the top four, Neville was bubbling during his news conference after the game. The former pundit talked openly about how he had enjoyed the game, felt comfortable on the bench and thought it was the best that Valencia had played since he arrived. The spoils may have been shared, but the contrast in both managers’ moods was clear.
Saturday afternoon’s Catalan derby was also an entertaining game to watch, although it didn’t look too much fun for Barca to play in.
Lionel Messi hit the crossbar and Luis Suarez the post, while Neymar appeared to receive racist abuse from the home fans. But there were few complaints from the Blaugrana camp after the game about the 0-0 result given that Espanyol keeper Pau Lopez made just two saves, neither of them too difficult. Indeed, Barca coach Luis Enrique suggested his team had got what they deserved for not matching their poorer neighbours’ intensity and aggression.
Although Atletico are top for now, Barca remain huge title favourites despite the fact they have now drawn three of their last four La Liga games. Mental and physical tiredness after a successful but draining 2015 looks an issue, which makes it all the more strange that Luis Enrique decided to make just one substitution during Saturday’s game.
The Camp Nou outfit could face nine games during a busy January schedule — assuming they come through two more tough Copa del Rey legs against their scrappy neighbours. Summer signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal are now finally available to play, while ex-Barca B players Nolito and Denis Suarez could well return in the transfer window. Extra numbers and some new freshness are badly needed if 2016 is to go to plan for Barca.