With the level of scrutiny so high perhaps we should have expected it but there seemed to be an awful lot of focus on where and how Gary Neville stood on the touchline at the Mestalla on Wednesday night. Hands in his pockets, rarely straying from the spot he took up deep in his technical area and watching as the size of the task that lies ahead at Valencia became clear to him.
Los Che needed to beat Lyon and hope that Gent did not beat Zenit St Petersburg to progress from Group H but they got neither. Lyon came away from Spain with a 0-2 victory and Gent triumphed over Zenit 2-1 to send Valencia and Neville into the Europa League.
With many eyes drawn on the Mestalla as it hosted Neville’s first game as a professional head coach, Valencia fell flat as they failed to produce the result in-keeping with Neville’s rapid rise.
Despite a positive start from the Spaniards, coming after a hard fight to salvage a late draw against Barcelona on Saturday, watched by Neville in the comfort of club-owner Peter Lim’s private box, Lyon eased to victory courtesy of Maxwell Cornet’s stunning effort just before half-time and a late goal from Alexandre Lacazette.
The home team looked flat and disjointed, inhibited by the anxiety to impress the new manager that gazed on passively from the technical area.
Calm amidst the tension
Neville promised he would remain calm in his first game in the dugout and he was true to that word, anybody familiar with the level of insight he displayed regularly on Sky Sports would be assured that he was analysing and assessing all aspect of his new team’s performance in detail.
The match itself would have taught him little and he is wise enough to know that judgements can’t be made this early in his reign.
He already knows that the Valencia he is taking over lie ninth in La Liga, level on points with minnows Eibar, whom they travel to on Sunday for Neville’s first La Liga game in charge, having won only five of their first 14 games in charge.
So far this season the Mestalla has been a nervous place with supporters quick to turn on outgoing manager Nuno Espirito Santo after sporting director Francisco Rufete and Roberto Ayala, both former players for the club, were jettisoned, and this weekend the true business starts for Neville as he aims for an upturn in league form to get the supporters back onside.
Talent and fresh faces at his disposal
There is plenty with him to work with in order to do just that; 20 year old Jose Gaya is a huge prospect at left-back, Dani Parejo and Javi Fuego are both talented midfielders and Santiago Mina, Paco Alcacer and Alvaro Negredo form a dangerous attack-line.
The defence, coping with the loss of Nicolas Otamendi to Manchester City in the summer and the injury to goalkeeper and vice-captain Diego Alves, holds the second-best record in La Liga with 11 goals conceded. Only Atletico Madrid have shipped less.
Andre Gomes can create from midfield if given the licence to do so while Sofiane Feghouli and Pablo Piatti can provide incision from out wide but have so far struggled under the tense atmosphere the club has started the season in.
That is significantly owing to Lim, despite the Singaporean billionaire’s financial power rescuing them from near ruin and guiding them back to the Champions League, and the involvement of super-agent Jorge Mendes, a close associate of Lim’s.
This summer has been spent making permanent the series of loan deals Mendes arranged last year, €74 million on compulsory purchase deals, while the supporters watched Otamendi, the rock in last season’s defence, move to Manchester City while they yearned for some fresh and exciting names to come through the door ahead of their return to the Champions League.
They got Aymen Abdennour, a £17 million signing from Monaco, and Aderlan Santos, arriving from Sporting Braga for £6.5 million. Both players are represented by Mendes. Otamendi, sold to City for £31 million, was also a client of Mendes, and so too is Rafa Mir, the 19 year old who was mysteriously called into the Champions League for the defeat to Zenit in Russia.
There is Gomes, the right-back Joao Cancelo and Rodrigo, who Mendes moved from Benfica for combined total of around £42 million, there is Ruben Vezo, Danilo Barbosa and Santi Mina.
Question marks and criticism over the Mendes and Lim’s choreography
Negredo however isn’t represented by Mendes and didn’t play for Nuno after October 4th. When the striker queried his omission the mutiny became too much for Nuno, who was Mendes’s first ever client after he became an agent, and the supporters perceived him to be the puppet under Lim and Mendes’s choreography.
Relations between the manager and Rufete and Ayala were far from cordial too and when the two popular members of backroom staff were pushed out, it only served to exacerbate the growing antipathy. “Nuno vete ya” (Nuno go now) was the popular Mestalla chant.
And so he went and in came Neville. Two Nevilles. Brother Phil will provide assistance as a co-coach alongside the long-serving Salvador Gonzalez, the siblings having dealings with Lim in their Hotel Football and Café Football businesses as well as with Salford City, the Singaporean owning 50% of the non-league club the Nevilles run together with the rest of Manchester United’s famous ‘class of 92’.
Suspicion will be rife therefore that Neville, having previously never held a manager’s job and his only experience coming as working as a coaching consultant with England while starring as a television pundit, will act as another pawn to Lim and therefore Mendes.
It was wise then that Neville, seeking an immediate bond with the locals, penned an open letter pleading to give his all to the job and held an open training session in the build-up to the game with Lyon.
Needs to prove himself as a manager with integrity
As the player who served Manchester United at the highest level for twenty years and the businessman, the pundit, the coach, Neville is sure to pour every ounce of energy into this job and if he is succeeds English football will be better off for it.
It is early days and Neville will be given time to adapt to new surroundings, to a new language and a new league.
But soon, starting ideally with the trip to Eibar’s tiny 6,300 Ipurua home on Sunday, he will have to begin convincing that he is not just an accessory to Lim and Mendes’s business-plan.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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