It was all going so well for Mauricio Pellegrino on his home debut as Valencia Coach. At half-time his side led Deportivo La Coruna 3-1, having scored three sumptuous goals, and brought back the pace and flair that a demanding support at Mestalla had been looking for.
By the end, the range of emotions had been so conflicting that Pellegrino had received the customary Mestalla baptism for Coaches as the boos and whistles rained down on him and his players as they left the field with only a point from a 3-3 draw.
Indeed, the Argentine could be said to have experienced a season in 90 minutes, as Valencia’s performance before and after the interval last night perfectly encapsulated Unai Emery’s final season in charge pre and post-winter break.
In the first-half they were brilliant to watch, the ball circulated accurately and with pace thanks to the Argentine duo of Tino Costa and Fernando Gago at the base of the midfield – it continued even when Dani Parejo replaced the later after just 38 minutes. Andres Guardado and Sofiane Feghouli offered pace and direction on the wings and they were well-supported by probably the best full-back combination in the League outside of Barcelona as Jeremy Mathieu and Joao Pereira got forward to good effect.
However, the real spark came from the front two, Jonas and Roberto Soldado. It was the latter who claimed most of the headlines last season for his goalscoring feats, but it was the Brazilian who had the more consistent campaign, scoring and creating even after the Spanish international faltered with injury towards the end of the campaign.
For the first two goals Jonas created and Soldado finished. The second in particular a beautiful demonstration of technique and vision as Jonas controlled and passed Tino Costa’s floated cross in one touch to allow his strike partner to bicycle-kick the ball into the empty net.
After a brief Depor rally, Parejo then released Feghouli to fire in the third and there could have even been more before half-time as Daniel Aranzubia did brilliantly to deny Soldado his hat-trick.
But, in an all too familiar feeling for fans of Los Che, an unrecognisable side came out for the second-half. When the League split for its Christmas break last year, Valencia were just seven points off Real Madrid and four behind Barcelona, in the end they finished 39 and 30 points adrift respectively.
Those failings from the second part of last season were clearly in evidence again last night. Whether it be complacency or a lack of physical preparation just two weeks into the season, Valencia’s tempo and ball movement dropped significantly, whilst Depor grew stronger and more confident as the half wore on.
Defensive sloppiness was also on show as Abel Aguilar, a midfielder not renowned for his goalscoring prowess, was given a huge amount of space to roll in his second goal of the evening and in the end it was indiscipline that cost Valencia as Ricardo Costa conceded a penalty and was shown a second yellow card for a push on Riki with 15 minutes to go.
The award of the penalty may have been harsh, but the fact that excluding Costa, five other Valencia players were booked as the tide turned against them in the second period shows a lack of control and even frustration at not being able to arrest the decline.
It would have been unrealistic to expect Pellegrino, a rookie Coach, to have fundamentally changed the character of his squad in just a few months, but in the past few seasons Valencia’s success has been built on a flying start before just about holding on to their advantage when injuries, suspensions and the demands of European football take their toll down the final straight.
Success that has delivered three successive championships – of the League they can win that is – and success that, although they aren’t satisfied with, the fans at Mestalla have come to expect as a minimum requirement.
The task for Pellegrino is to extract the free-flowing, sexy football produced by his side in the first 45 minutes of this weekend’s game, whilst superimposing some of the gritty resolute defending he was so adept at in his days as a player, to avoid the second 45 minutes on show.
Not a lot to ask for, but then, such is the life of a Valencia Coach.