“It is not a good time for football Coaches, you are sat on a glass chair,” Mauricio Pellegrino said at the Museum of Illustration and Modernity in Valencia last Thursday. Having delayed taking on his first job as head Coach, with backroom staff positions after retiring as a player in 2006, Pellegrino is quickly becoming acquainted with the pressure involved in coaching – he has already picked up a first touchline ban in the League.
Pellegrino was speaking of the power shift in the game. He said players are now far more important than Coaches, and recognised that when it is a choice between the two, more often that not it will be the Coach that goes. “If I say I don’t want Soldado, I’d last three minutes,” he half-joked. While there is no danger of the Valencia boss discarding his free-scoring captain, given how precarious he sees his role in relation to player power and performance levels, Pellegrino will have been comforted by the reaction of his side on Tuesday night at Mestalla.
Because while qualification was already assured before kick-off thanks to Lille’s win over BATE Borisov, the challenge of beating Bayern Munich to top the group became even tougher after a needless and reckless challenge from Antonio Barragan on David Alaba just 33 minutes in, leaving the hosts with 10 men.
The team quickly regrouped to produce a solid and impressive display - with a discipline that deserted Barragan - against last season's Champions League finalists. Sofiane Feghouli marshalled the right flank with help from Ever Banega and his work was repaid with Los Che's lead, finding its way past Manuel Neuer in the Bayern goal thanks to a deflection from Dante's hand.
While Thomas Muller levelled just five minutes later, after the previous weekend's performance against Espanyol, this game will have delighted Pellegrino. Valencia were ‘far better than the game in Germany,’ said Bayern's Coach Jupp Heynckes afterwards, noticing an improvement in the opposition. Soldado believed the team deserved a 10 out of 10, presumably for each of those Valencia players left on the pitch.
With Valencia eighth in the League table, having started slowly with just one win in the first five matches of the season, while the club may be within reach of a more respectable position in La Liga, the Champions League is not only a distraction but also an opportunity for the Coach in his debut season.
After failing to progress from a group with Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen and Genk last season, it is not since 2007 that Valencia have passed the round of 16, when they lost to Chelsea in the quarter-finals.
For Pellegrino, just as for many fans, the memory of high-octane Champions League nights is still fresh in the memory. After the 3-0 humiliation at the hands of Real Madrid in the 2000 final, the following year's second defeat was even more painful. Having himself missed the decisive penalty in the shootout that night in Milan, it will be inevitable for match previews – not least against Bayern – to turn to the idea of a grudge match for the Argentine.
“I'm happy, but we didn't get the win that would have rounded it off,” said Pellegrino after the draw with Bayern. “We gave everything and we were intelligent.” There is little more any Coach could expect from his players. While the pre-season target was to restore Valencia as a power on the domestic scene, the Valencia board had not budgeted for passing the group phase of the European competition. Bringing in an extra €3.5m for having passed to the Last 16 will make Pellegrino’s life easier not just with his players, and the fans, but also with his employers.