“Every time you looked left and the men in white attacked, you thought: ‘We could lose this,’” said the Valencia coach, Marcelino García Toral.
“But every time you looked right, my good side, and we attacked, there were real chances to score.” So Marcelino looked left, right and back again while behind him everyone in the Santiago Bernabéu stand did the same, accelerating to the end. Left, where Neto pushed Karim Benzema’s header against the post on 92.38; right, where Simone Zaza wriggled into the area on 93.22, the winner there before him until, suddenly, Casemiro was too; and left again, where the was one last attack in a game full of them, Real Madrid v Valencia had become next goal wins but somehow the next goal never came. They played on past midnight until, eventually, it ended 2-2.
At the final whistle, Marcelino turned left again, shook Zinedine Zidane’s hand and headed quickly down the tunnel. On the pitch, the players were exhausted. High in the north stand, a few hundred Valencia supporters applauded them. Zaza applauded back, shirt removed to reveal the monitor underneath recording his every move, and there had been a lot of them. He also wore a Madrid top hung over his forearm and a disappointed look.
“I’m not annoyed with him, not at all. You see the moment you can win at the Bernabéu and it looks easy from the side; on the pitch, after killing themselves all game, it’s much harder,” the Valencia manager said but Zaza knew he’d had the chance. Yet he also knew that Madrid had too: “Seven or eight really clear ones,” Zidane calculated. And, anyway, this was a performance to be proud of.
“It was a lovely spectacle,” Marcelino said. There was no Cristiano Ronaldo, no Sergio Ramos – both of whom were suspended – and not much of Gareth Bale, withdrawn to whistles. But there was Casemiro at centre-back and Luka Modric, as ever. There was Marcelo delivering ball after ball, and Benzema getting chance after chance. There were 29 attempts, eight of them his.
Then there was Marco Asensio, who scored two superb goals – the opener belted in from the edge of the area and an equaliser from an 83rd-minute free kick. He was everywhere, carrying Madrid; carry on like this and he could become everything, yet even he was not enough. There was no victory and “no reproach” from Zidane. “That’s football,” he said – and it had been a lot of fun. But that was not all there was; it might not even be the most significant thing there was.
“Asensio going to mark an era at Real Madrid and for Spain,” Marcelino said. La Liga might have a star. Just as importantly, it might also have one of its biggest teams back, a historic side pulled from the dark. It was not just Asensio; it was his players too.
The ball slipped under Geoffrey Kongdobia’s foot, leading to Madrid’s opening goal, but otherwise he was immense, all over the pitch, protecting the defence and then arriving in the Madrid area to score the second. He, like the impressive Murillo at centre-back, had been with the team for less than a week. Alongside him, Dani Parejo, passed and passed and then passed some more. Pushed towards the exit in the past, Marcelino has faith in him. “Dani is the leader of this team – not because he talks, but because of what he does,” the manager said.
“Parejo for Spain!” the former captain David Albelda proclaimed. The first goal was made by José Luis Gaya and Lato for Soler – all of them products of the youth system. And when he was needed, in the 93rd minute Neto, signed from Juventus in the summer, was there. At the other end, Zaza may not have taken his chance but he led – and he had got the winner in week one.
If that was a glimpse of something good, this was another demonstration. “We have competed – and very well – against the best team in the world, the team that beat Barcelona and Manchester United. I’m sure the fans will be very satisfied to see that,” Marcelino said. “Today Casemiro stopped four or five attacks of ours. Madrid are always going to have opportunities and few teams have come here and made so many chances; we were still attacking in the final minutes, still looking towards their goal, which tells you that this is a competitive, ambitious team.”
It is a team, full stop – and after the last two years at Mestalla that’s progress. The 2-2 draw at the Bernabéu on Saturday night revealed a team they could identify with at last. The cover of Super Deporte summed it up: “Proud!” “They lost two points but gained a team,” another headline ran. According to El Mercantil, this was “a draw that tastes like a return”.
“We’ve been waiting two years for this,” wrote Cayetano Ros. There was much to cheer, and the sense that there is more to come, some optimism at last.
Now, a little advice might not go amiss here. Valencia have now drawn four of their last six at the Bernabéu and last season, amid their crisis, they beat Madrid at Mestalla. It was there, too, that Rafa Benítez’s brief period came to an end. There’s something about Madrid that has brought the best from them – at once something to celebrate and something to lament, an indication of just how badly they were underachieving. It is only week two, and they could have departed the Bernabéu defeated – heavily. But this does feel different, a new beginning. A change in policy and direction, the beginning of a recovery, which may well be long but could prove lasting.
After the game, Marcelino was asked if he could see his DNA in the side. “I don’t know what my DNA is,” he replied, “but you can see that we work.” And this side already looks like his. This summer Valencia found the right manager – finding an actual manager for once was a start – and they have trusted in him. There have been changes in the presidency and the sporting directorate and there is a new director general too. Mateu Alemany, once at Mallorca, is a football man and widely respected; he is also deferring to his manager; meanwhile, the owner Peter Lim is trusting in them this time.
Mistakes have been made, and the level of investment has plummeted, but his willingness to seek solutions can’t be denied. There are just five players left from Lim’s first season in charge. And that number could yet fall further. “Marcelino set us ‘homework’ and we’re trying to complete that,” Alemany says.
Every transfer is agreed with him – and while that has the potential for confrontation, as eventually happened at Villarreal, there is an understanding there. They have been open about the desire to sign more players – the targets are Goncalo Guedes and Andreas Pereira – yet Almenay’s job has not just been bringing players in, it is getting players out, starting with Diego Alves and Enzo Pérez, Álvaro Negredo too. A dressing-room clean-up was a prerequisite of Marcelino accepting the job.
“In order to reverse that negative momentum we had to get rid of some,” Marcelino admitted. “To avoid something similar happening, we had to take action: we had to act as we have.” In doing so, he leant on Voro, the caretaker manager who cares more than anyone else. He could hardly have been better informed.
Marcelino is building his way: 4-4-2, tight, compact, extremely quick on the break, but always in numbers. Transitions are his thing; he is not interested in possession for its own sake. The Bernabéu offered a demonstration of that: he was right to insist on the opportunities they had had, springing forward outnumbering Madrid. It is a staple of his style and with time and repetition the decision making should improve. It will not be for lack of work, that is for sure. Marcelino is very serious, every detail controlled. There are blood tests daily, an obsession with weight, the demands intense. He is, players admit, pesado – heavy-going, hard work. And while it can sound simplistic, that is exactly what they needed. “We’re more competitive than we were before,” Zaza admits.
It is only the start, but it is a start. “I am proud of them,” Marcelino said. “We competed to a very high level, looking to score. We showed collective will, spirit, enthusiasm, and ambition. There’s solidarity, organisation and bravery. We’re a team in construction still but we made a lot of chances here. It’s week two but we’re laying down solid foundations and so long as we keep this humility we can grow.”
Results and talking points
Real Sociedad 3-0 Villarreal Betis 2-1 Celta Alavés 0-2 Barcelona Girona 1-0 Malaga Levante 2-2 Deportivo Las Palmas 1-5 Atlético Eibar 0-1 Athletic Espanyol 0-1 Leganés Getafe 0-1 Sevilla Real Madrid 2-2 Valencia.
• History made. Girona have their first ever win in the first division, and deservedly so.
• The Real Sociedad captain, Xabi Prieto, scooped the ball into the penalty area and almost immediately the Anoeta stadium broke into applause and started chanting his name. Not because of the pass – although it was beautiful – but because he wears No10 and it was his 500th game at the club he supports and the one he has played for his entire career, gliding through games with calm authority, oozing class. This is the man who even stayed when they went down to Segunda, despite his then-manager insisting he was good enough to play for Spain at that point and who is still playing this season despite admitting that he thought last season would be his farewell campaign. Playing and playing superbly, too. He said he was uncomfortable being the centre of attention and didn’t really like all the fuss but it turned out nicely. He couldn’t have celebrated the occasion better: he scored the second, neatly turning in on the bounce, in a 3-0 win that took Real Sociedad top. “I will remember today for the rest of my life,” he said. “Feeling loved is the nicest thing there is.”
• They were not drinking coffee or smoking big cigars, but they were cracking open the cans of beer in the not-so-fancy dining car. And why not? Leganés were on the way back from Barcelona on the AVE train (second class), where they had just beaten Espanyol 1-0 with a goal from Martin Mantovani which sees them start the season with six points from six, alongside La Real and Barcelona. That left them third and left someone blaring out the Champions League anthem back at Butarque.
• Partey time on Gran Canaria. Yet again. No, not for Las Palmas, where Tana has become the latest player involved in a bit of a late night disco related trouble, prompting the club to impose a 2am curfew (yes, 2am). No, no: this time, not for the first time, it was Atlético celebrating. Oh, and unusually for this column, that’s not a typo. For the second year in a row, Atlético went to Las Palmas and scored five (the only other place they have got five in a game was Guijuelo). They were without Antoine Griezmann but it didn’t matter much and the goals were belters too, Koke getting his first ever brace and Thomas Partey, who was superb throughout in place of Gabi, rounding it all off.
• The first division headed back to the Coliseum, where newly promoted Getafe were good but did not win. Instead, Ganso scored a neat winner for Sevilla seven minutes from the end.
• Leo Messi’s game by numbers as Barcelona beat Alavés 2-0: two goals, one post, one penalty miss, and no smiles.
• Ninety-nine days later, Real Madrid were handed the league title trophy. With James Rodríguez, Pepe and Álvaro Morata no longer there. With Fábio Coentrao gone, too. With Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo in jeans and trainers, Madrid shirts momentarily pulled on over the top, and with Sunday night’s starters, champions over three months ago, out on the pitch, their minds elsewhere. And with the rest of the squad standing pitchside watching the captains go and get the cup from up in the stands while, at the other end, Valencia’s players stretched and jogged on the spot, waiting for the match to get under way. Some of the Madrid players applauded politely, as if this was not really anything to do with them – which, in a few cases, it wasn’t of course. And the trophy was brought back down, a photo swiftly taken, and on with the game.
So at last it was theirs, the RFEF deciding that they could be bothered to bring it along this time. Might as well give them this year’s trophy too, many said. But by the end of the game, some felt a bit differently. The lack of a back-up striker concerns, as does the fact that they were forced to play Casemiro in defence – although there will not be many times this season when three centre-backs are out. And, a fortnight into the season, Madrid – whose leadership was loudly shouted about last week – are not top. Real Sociedad are, while Barcelona, Leganés and Atletico all sit above them. Madrid are still clear favourites of course and some of the concern has been comically overblown. But at least it shows that now is not the time to give them the trophy. Mind you, in all probability, nor is any time this season – even if they do win the league again.
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