Fireworks in Mestalla but Valencia fall short again
Gary Neville's side put on a show for an hour against Atlético but were unable to prevent the visitors running out 3-1 winners at Mestalla on Sunday.
Fireworks are not in short supply in Valencia during the annual Fallas festival, an orgy of noise and flame during which unfortunate public figures are often parodied and, at the climax of the festivities, set ablaze.
Some take the best part of a year to build and so Gary Neville was at least safe from seeing the flames lick higher around an uncomfortable likeness. In any case, Neville’s tenure has been more boom than bust in recent weeks with a run of three wins in four Liga games before Atlético alighted at the Mestalla on Sunday.
The former Manchester United defender said before the game that he had studied Atlético at length, “in the Champions League, over here…”
Familiarity breeds contempt - as a lengthy list of managers to have braved the Mestalla hotseat can attest - but the incumbent seems to be winning over the famously hostile crowd. Even after his side had been defeated 3-1 there was no blanket of emotion in Mestalla, no handkerchief farewell as the manager hurried down the tunnel.
Valencia played well but the home side just didn’t have the nous to maintain an uneasy status quo at 1-1, or the legs to stop Atlético embellishing the score line towards the end.
One of Neville’s early managerial sleights of hands was to play Joao Cancelo as a winger but the Valencia manager sprung few surprises in his line-up, opting for a fluid 4-3-3 and mobility in attack through Denis Cheryshev, Paco Alcácer and Sofiane Feghouli and a solid midfield.
Enzo, back from injury, Javi Fuego and André Gomes are equal to any middle three in Primera in terms application and have more than a sprinkle of flair between them but Valencia’s defensive frailty has been their undoing so many times this season. A bit of pinball in the area on the 10-minute mark was eventually hooked clear but the back four’s lack of confidence is evident.
The visitors went close a few minutes later when a clearance hit Koke and ricocheted into the path of Vietto, who blazed over the bar. The Argentinean found himself in a glorious position moments later – perhaps too inviting for a striker who has refused almost every rsvp to attend the net this season – and the Atlético man panicked and lofted a tame effort high and wide.
It took an Atlético player, albeit on-loan Guilherme Siqueira, to first test Jan Oblak, Valencia’s left-back lashing a shot in from distance that forced the keeper into a reaction stop.
Atlético had been knocking on the door and Griezmann hammered in the opening goal midway through the first half, the Frenchman given the freedom of Mestalla by the home defence and time to pick his spot from distance, unperturbed by a single white shirt, although five were happy to stand and watch. It still required a fizzing low drive to beat Diego Alves and Griezmann provided it, even if the Valencia keeper won’t enjoy too many replays of his attempt to keep the ball out.
However, it was Simeone who was screaming at his players moments later when Alcácer cushioned a header into the path of Cheryshev, who eluded his markers with a deft touch and fired home from close range.
Neville attacked the night air in Mestalla with relish, pumping his fists in delight and it was a hugely important counter-blow from his side. Atlético had been building to a goal for 15 minutes before they found one but immediately after the equalizer Valencia began to play with more purpose. After Vietto had once again spurned the offer of a celebratory dance at one end, Cheryshev, clearly enjoying his own lease of life at Mestalla, burst through at the other but saw his effort clear the bar.
Atlético had not conceded a goal in exactly a month in La Liga and chasing a game is not exactly something Simeone’s side are accustomed to. Valencia have been doing little else all season yet Neville’s team settled after the equalizer and -- sensing that Atlético’s need was greater than theirs -- started to sniff an unlikely victory.
Atlético knew only three points would suffice for their designs and Valencia, having inched up the table in recent weeks, were happy to go toe-to-toe with Simeone’s side. Both sides were snapping into tackles and neither had time to settle on the ball after the restart as the pitch appeared to double in size.
Feghouli found himself in space 10 minutes into the second half but his touch deserted him and he could only blast the ball into a defender for a corner. The Algeria international showed his defter side by playing Alcácer in but the Spain international scuffed his shot and Oblak was able to divert it to safety.
At the other end Vietto couldn’t have caught an effort inside the area more sweetly but Alves pulled off a trademark wonder-save to prolong the Argentinean’s frustration in front of the sticks.
Neville shuffled his pack with half an hour to go, replacing the stricken Cheryshev with striker Rodrigo, and Simeone replied in kind, sending on Fernando Torres in place of midfielder Matias Kranevitter.
It took less than 10 minutes for Torres to make his mark. Popping up at the back post unmarked, the striker latched on to José Giménez’s flicked header and squeezed the ball in at Alves’ near post.
Valencia did not let their heads drop and continued to press forward but the cutting edge had been blunted. Torres was again involved in another key moment as Aderlan Santos raced across to prevent a break and cut the Atlético striker down in full flow, earning a second entry in the referee’s book and an early bath.
Alves’ early heroics were cruelly undone towards the end as Valencia were caught at the back. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco cut into the area and fired a low shot that Alves should have dealt with but inexplicably, the keeper fell to his knees in an attempt to block the effort.
At 3-1 down and with a man fewer on the pitch the home side’s resistance went the same way and many fans started to file out to enjoy the spectacle in the streets of Valencia. It was late and the sport in Mestalla had been at the best, for an hour at least.
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