Wait goes on for Neville despite impressive show
Valencia 2-2 Real Madrid
When Gary Neville accepted the offer, a little left-field though it seemed, to take on the job of coaching Valencia, he suspected judgement would be reserved on him for the first month, but that the opening fixture of 2016 might mark an end of honeymoon. The visit of Real Madrid to the Mestalla is charged and resonant in any season. Last night, it was utterly gripping, from first minute to last.
A thrilling, tense, feisty, noisy night on the Mediterranean might have finished better - had Alvaro Negredo capitalised on a breakaway in the 93rd minute - for the novice coach, up against Madrid's vastly experienced Rafa Benitez. Benitez was thanked ahead of kick-off with dignity and affection by Valencia fans with posters and applause for what he achieved at the club a little over a decade ago. After that, it was breathless. Valencia trailed twice, and were 2-1 down in the 82nd minute after Gareth Bale headed in for Madrid.
In what is already a Neville trademark, Valencia then came back, almost instantly, thanks to Paco Alcacer's scrambled, headed goal. It was no less than Valencia deserved. They had played sensibly but without fear, and it was not they who lost their cool in a heated atmosphere, but Madrid's Mateo Kovacic, sent off 20 minutes from full-time.
If Benitez was obliged to acknowledge his young midfielder had been reckless in raising his studs to earn the red card, he had some grounds to wonder at whether Madrid ought to have had an earlier penalty, when Bale tumbled over Lucas Orban's outstretched leg while his team held the lead thanks to Karim Benzema's excellent goal. Neville's Valencia did win a spot-kick, slotted in by Dani Parejo just before half-time.
Benitez's first competitive return to the Mestalla, where he won two Liga titles and a Uefa Cup as head coach, was end-to-end for 90 minutes.
Beforehand, it had been almost touching and gave him an experience he has hardly ever known with Madrid: applause, appreciation, even adoration. A huge banner, stretching across most of the width of the pitch, hung on the front barricade of the second tier of seats behind the goal reminded him of a golden era: "Rafa," it said, "You gave us the best years of our lives. Thank you."
A number of Madrid followers, by contrast, have inflicted on Benitez one of the more exasperating couple of months of a career in which he has not always established an easy rapport with supporters. The demands for him to quit are now a regular preamble to kick-off at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
The idea that he is instinctively a defensive thinker and planner will not go away, either, in spite of all the evidence he can, and does cite, to argue against that perception. They scored a beautiful opener at the Mestalla.
To devise ways of interrupting the sort of move Madrid's front trio stitched together so elegantly for the opening goal is tough.
Benzema began and completed it, the beneficiary of not one but two blind but perfectly measured passes, struck first-time, by Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Welshman's was a backheel, the Portuguese's contribution even slicker, a flick with the side of his boot to tee up Benzema's precise low drive.
If Rafa's Real are often sharp starters, with early goals, Neville has shown he can galvanise Valencia after setback. At 1-0 down, Valencia upped a gear, and by the time Pepe impeded the determined Andre Gomes in the Madrid penalty area, the Madrid defence had come through a few narrow escapes. Parejo converted the penalty, with some Madrid players still unhappy that Bale had not been awarded a spot-kick at the other end.
Neville acknowledges one of the more awkward aspects of his unlikely first gig as a head coach, a disadvantage of taking a job abroad, is the need to share his half-time instructions and observations through an interpretor.
Yesterday's team talk was delivered by a man exhilarated, to players buoyed up by the momentum they had established in the previous half an hour and the reward they had for it. Valencia scored their equaliser on 45 minutes.
The valour of Valencia, the quality of the contest, the shifting balance of pre-eminence can only have been stimulating.
Neville the manager is still a young project and he told Sky Sports in the lead-up to the match his longer-term ambitions may not include senior coaching, a reflection not of any impulsive snap judgment on his experiences in Spain over the last month, but of the variety of options open to a protean individual who has been a successful businessman, analyst, columnist and coach with England.
Valencia has put other young coaches like Ronald Koeman and Quique Sanchez Flores through its wringer; they came out of it fortified, and on current evidence, with very exportable skills.
In the Premier League, where Koeman and Quique have given Southampton and Watford upward mobility, one manager in five has Valencia on his coaching curriculum vitae: Guus Hiddink, now at Chelsea, and Claudio Ranieri, at Leicester City, have both known the bouquets and the sound of bile at the Mestalla. Neville is still in his honeymoon after last night's excellent endeavours.