‘Always grateful’ was the banner which greeted Rafael Benitez in what transpired to be his last game managing Real Madrid, but the great pity for the Spaniard and for the man in the opposing dugout on Saturday night was that this message came courtesy of Valencia fans rather than his own.
Those Los Che supporters packed into the Mestalla for the recent La Liga clash against Real seized the opportunity to pay tribute to their former manager, visiting in an official capacity for the first time since his glorious spell as Valencia boss between 2001 and 2004.
Big club fallen on hard times
Benitez presided over two Spanish titles and a UEFA Cup triumph during the last golden era for the club.
Since then, Valencia have toiled in their pursuit of such success, barring a 2007/08 Copa del Rey under current Southampton boss, Ronald Koeman.
Despite regaining entry to the Champions League last season, a poor European campaign this time around and sagging domestic form saw Valencia’s board appoint the untested Gary Neville at the start of December 2015 in an audacious bid to change the club’s ailing fortunes.
The legendary Manchester United right-back caught the football world cold when opting to leave his post as a Sky Sports pundit to launch his club management career on foreign shores at Valencia, where expectations are notoriously high.
Although Neville’s razor-sharp analysis of the game for television, coaching work with England and personal medal collection as a player would appear to hold him in good stead, these factors are no guarantee of success.
Benitez’s remarkably short stint over at the Bernabeu will only increase the pressure on the potentially naive Neville, and younger brother Phillip, already on Valencia’s coaching staff, to get results in rapid fashion.
Tough baptism for Neville
It has been an inauspicious start for the Englishman too, as Los Che now trail Villarreal in the fourth Champions League qualification spot by 13 points down in tenth, despite twice rallying from behind to draw 2-2 with Benitez’s Madrid side last time out.
If this gap seems too great to bridge by the end of the season, perhaps the upcoming cup competitions will provide G-Nev with some much-needed momentum.
A deep run in either the Copa del Rey or the Europa League may win over more doubters by the season’s end, but with the spectre of a freshly unemployed Valencian hero looming large, Neville senior will have to sleep with one eye open for the foreseeable.
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