Driving away from Valencia’s training ground at 2.30am after a 7-0 defeat with a thin cordon of security guards holding back 200 or so angry supporters is not what Gary Neville had in mind when he took charge of the club in November.
Yet that was the scenario he faced after what Valencia’s sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch called “one of the worst results in the club’s history”.
Pitarch had already refused to confirm Neville would remain as head coach. This is the sporting director of whom one of Neville’s predecessors, Rafa Benitez, famously said after one transfer window: “I asked for a table and he bought me a lamp”. Pitarch was on similar form in this window as he oversaw two loan signings – Guilherme Siqueira and Denis Cheryshev. That’s a left-back and a right winger for a team crying out for a new centre-back and a midfield leader.
Pitarch is understood to be in favour of relieving Neville of his duties but there is resistance from Valencia’s chairman Lay Hoon Chan and club owner Peter Lim.
Lim had a front-row seat at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night to watch the debacle against Barcelona but is a friend and business partner of Neville. He does not want this to end badly or, indeed, before the season is out.
The ideal scenario for Lim and Neville is that the storm can be ridden out, but defeat at Real Betis on Sunday could force a change. That would be another negative result against a side below Valencia in La Liga – part of Neville’s problem is that his team has failed to beat relegation candidates Getafe, Sporting Gijon and Rayo Vallecano.
An English reporter who defends Neville is open to accusations of relying on national bias – and it is true that a former Spain international-turned-television pundit would have been shown little patience had he failed to win a league game in eight attempts.
Yet it is also correct that Neville has a poorly assembled squad further weakened by a lengthy injury list. Part of the reason supporters have – for the most part – not turned on him yet is that they recognise there is no one he is not picking who should be in the team.
The club has signed a high proportion of players related to Lim’s friend the agent Jorge Mendes since the Singapore businessman bought the club. Some of those imports look to have potential. Neville has been impressed with 22-year-old Portuguese midfielder Andre Gomes. But others such as Tunisian central defender Aymen Abdennour signed for €24m (£18m) from Monaco and 19-year-old Brazilian midfielder Danilo Barbosa, who is on loan from Braga, have not adapted well.
Neville has only two centre-forwards and both the fading Alvaro Negredo, who looks a shadow of the player Manchester City signed in 2013, and Spain striker Paco Alcacer have had injury problems. Alcacer strained ankle and knee ligaments two weeks ago and, playing in his place last Sunday, Negredo missed three one-on-one opportunities in a 1-0 defeat to Gijon.
With limited options, few have criticised Neville’s tactics, although the plan to defend deep against Barcelona was controversial and failed spectacularly.
Teams have done well in recent weeks against them with a high press and a player man-marking Sergio Busquets. But despite three recent examples of Malaga, Deportivo la Coruña and Atletico Madrid, Neville, believing his players would not be able to sustain the press for 90 minutes, opted to sit back.
He will point to the fact that despite their tactics Malaga and Atletico also lost to Barcelona. Real Madrid were beaten by them 4-0 earlier this season and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich lost 3-0 in last season’s Champions League semi-finals. He should not be judged on a 7-0 thrashing, no matter how embarrassing.
Perhaps his biggest mistake was to choose Valencia in the first place – a club that has had 15 coaching changes in as many years. It is a place where famous ex-players are always quick to circle like vultures. Former club captains David Albelda and Santi Canizares wasted no time on Wednesday in suggesting he should quit.
Others know the club’s problems go far deeper. Valencia have been falling apart for the best part of a decade thanks to the monumental mismanagement of previous president Juan Soler, who began building a new stadium and tried to sell the Mestalla just as the property market collapased. It left the club hugely indebted and having to sell its best three players every season.
Lim rode to the rescue but much to the disappointment of the club’s huge and highly vocal supporters there is no bottomless pit of money and a club that was once a mighty oak in La Liga is now reliant on acorn projects – buying youngsters and hoping they will develop into top players.
Little wonder then that Benitez, Pitarch’s top pick to take over at the end of this season is currently showing very little interest in being Neville’s successor.
Videos of those supporters waiting for Neville and his players at 2.30am appeared to show them singing “Neville vete ya” (“Neville, go now”) and even asking among themselves how they should sing it in English. The result against Betis on Sunday may well decide whether we hear them sing it again next Wednesday in the second leg against Barcelona.
Pain in Spain: Neville’s results
9 Dec L 2-0 Juventus (h) Champions League
13 Dec D 1-1 Eibar (a) La Liga
16 Dec W 2-0 Barakaldo (h) Copa del Rey
19 Dec D 2-2 Getafe (h) La Liga
31 Dec L 1-0 Villarreal (a) LL
3 Jan D 2-2 R Madrid (h) LL
6 Jan W 4-0 Granada (h) Copa del Rey
10 Jan L 2-0 Sociedad (a) LL
14 Jan W 3-0 Granada (a) Copa del Rey
17 Jan D 2-2 R Vallecano (h) LL
21 Jan D 1-1 Las Palmas (h) Copa del Rey
24 Jan D 1-1 Deportivo (a) LL
28 Jan W 1-0 Las Palmas (a) Copa del Rey
31 Jan L 1-0 Sporting Gijón (h) LL
3 Feb L 7-0 Barcelona (a) Copa del ReyReuse content