|Valencia (1)||Real Madrid (1)|
|Carlos Soler 78′||Karim Benzema 90′|
So, so, so close. After Carlos Soler’s goal in the 78th minute, it seemed that Valencia was on track for a famous victory over Real Madrid – only to be undone by virtually the last kick of the game. The Bat’s last home game of 2019 ended in a stalemate, as Albert Celades’s tired and injury ravaged squad eked out a creditable result against a rampaging Los Blancos who were on the back of four consecutive wins.
This was the first managerial clash between the two former Madrid teammates: the maestro Zinedine Zidane against the rookie Celades. And it was the greenhorn who nearly had the final laugh.
Valencia have been in imperious form at home this season, unbeaten across eight games in all competitions. But fortress Mestalla was facing its sternest test against second-placed Real Madrid. The injury curse that has plagued Valencia for much of this season did little to help preparations. The crisis had now shifted to their forward line, with Rodrigo Moreno the only recognised striker on Celades’s team sheet.
It was an early Madrid bombardment as the visitors swarmed forward from the start, with the excellent Jaume Domenech forced into four saves in the first 10 minutes. Jasper Cillesen should be starting to worry about his spot as first choice goalkeeper. While Celades had called his team to play with joy and enthusiasm in his pre-match conference, Valencia were limp and lethargic instead. But with a thinned out squad and their exhausting win at Ajax, they were lucky to hang on until halftime.
A switch flipped. Maybe it was Celades’s half-time wake up call, or the rising decibel levels within the Mestalla but Valencia were a different animal out of the tunnel. While the first half belonged to Los Blancos, the second half was all about the Los Che. The home side cranked up the intensity, with the players finding pockets of space to test Madrid’s keeper Thibuat Courtois.
Most managers would be contented with a draw against Real, but Celades sensed an opportunity. Making an attacking change, he swapped on Manu Vallejo for right back Jaume Costa with Daniel Wass taking Costa’s position. The tactical move reaped immediate dividends. Driving forward with the ball, Rodrigo fed Wass out to the right, whose cutback found a completely unmarked Soler. 1-0 Valencia.
At the back, Ezequiel Garay and Gabriel Paulista were rocks against the likes of Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. The defence has been a revelation under Celades, holding their own against some of the best in the world over the past few weeks. But under Zidane, Madrid have scored in every single game against Valencia. This run was seemingly set to end, until the 94th minute. Domenech parried a bullet header from Courtois, who ran up for a Madrid corner. The rebound fell to Benzema who only had to tap it in. Valencia’s players were left to rue what could have been.
“It’s a sweet and sour feeling we’re left with,” said Soler. “We gave everything we had today with quite a few players out. It’s a strange feeling because we let two points go at the end, but football can be like this. It’s always difficult to play Real Madrid, and we always have to be careful of them – whatever moments in the game,” said the midfielder, who covered an incredible 12.4km in the game.
But this week has been a good one for Los Che with two wins and a draw over a critical season-defining eight days. They staged a comeback against their derby rivals, dumped last season’s Champions League semi-finalist out of the Champions League, and now stopped the Real Madrid juggernaut in its track. Only three points separate them from fourth and they need to get through just one more game before a well-deserved break. This is Celades’s best week at Valencia yet.