One could say that the writing was on the wall – he had it coming. For a club that has finished third for the last three consecutive seasons, sitting in 12th place at this time was never going to be good enough. And, so it proved after Valencia’s defeat on Saturday night to Real Sociedad when after, “an exchange of views and debate” the club’s President Manuel Llorente announced that Mauricio Pellegrino had been relieved of his position.
The fact that the defeat came at home was perhaps the key factor. Valencia’s season had been held together by their superb record at the Mestalla where they had only dropped two points before their capitulation against the Basques. Only Barcelona have done better.
Away from home however, Valencia have been dismal. In fact, their five losses and two draws from seven games is the worst in La Liga. Though, it did not start all that bad. In the opening round of fixtures, they came from behind to claim a vital point away to league champions Real Madrid. Their next trip was to Barcelona and again, they impressed and only narrowly went down to a solitary Adriano goal. They perhaps deserved more too after their steely display at Camp Nou, but, as Pellegrino lamented in his post-match presser, “that is football, sometimes it can be very cruel….but, I am happy with how we played and if we keep this up we will win many games.”
However, as it would show after away losses to Mallorca, Levante, Real Betis and more recently in their 4-0 hammering by Malaga, Los Che could not keep it up. Following their convincing home win against Atletico Madrid in early November, their free-scoring captain Roberto Soldado called on his players to carry the same kind of form to away games, “We need to find the same motivation we have at home in our away games” – but they never could.
Well, at least not in the Primera Division. Pellegrino’s side did defeat Llagostera in the Copa del Rey last week, not that anything less against the Segunda B side would have been acceptable. And, in the Champions League they did claim a resounding 3-0 win away to BATE Borisov, who despite their limited European pedigree have raised an eyebrow or two this season after accounting for last years’ beaten finalists Bayern Munich.
Indeed, Valencia’s European campaign proves that Pellegrino’ s reign was not been an out-and-out disaster. Given that this is a coach whose only prior experience was working as an assistant at Liverpool in the latter part of the Rafael Benitez’s years before following him to Inter, having ensured his side’s progression to the latter stages with a group game still to be played was a significant achievement.
Pellegrino’s predecessor, Unai Emery, only once managed to guide his team so far in his four years at the helm even though he had the likes of David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata and Jordi Alba to call on at various times. Yet, despite slowly losing his best players and the club’s escalating financial problems, Emery did at least lead Valencia to three consecutive third-place finishes in La Liga, thus ensuring Champions League football and the loot that came along with it.
And, for a club whose financial problems have been well-documented and only complicated by the stop-start construction of a new stadium, qualifying for the Champions League is of paramount importance. As Llorente, said in his public statement announcing the club’s decision to sack Pellegrino, “Our aim is to see that the team qualifies for the Champions League.”
Although the club sit some eight places below the top four, they are still only four points behind fourth-placed Malaga. A string of positive results coupled with some favourable results elsewhere could change everything for Valencia. But, still the club must be wondering whether it was ever the right decision to allow Emery – who left with one round remaining last season – to leave in the first place.
Given that at this time last season Valencia sat in fourth place with ten more points, with more goals for and with 14 less conceded less, one can perhaps safely assume that the board are at least pondering it if not downright ruing over it. But, then again, it was really the fans that turned on their former coach first and ultimately pushed him out. Emery’s managerial style and personal manner rubbed them up the wrong way while his side’s losing of 29 points from winning positions during last season left them frustrated. Still, they were in a much better position as they are now. Perhaps next time round they will be careful what they wish for.