La Liga once again provided us with a frantic and thrilling weekend, but away from the drama between Deportivo and Barcelona, Valencia played out an enthralling game against Marcelo Bielsa's spluttering Athletic Bilbao side.
With Athletic leading 2-1 and 67 minutes on the clock, Bilbao midfielder Ander Herrera was sent off, but it took Valencia until five minutes before full time to make their one-man advantage count. First, Tino Costa bagged the equaliser in the 88th minute before Nelson Haedo Valdez headed home a late winner to send Bilbao home empty handed.
But instead of chalking down the victory solely to a numerical advantage, it is important to look at one of the players Valencia brought on as a substitute – Ever Banega [pictured, right].
I am sure most of you will be familiar with Banega – a tireless midfielder with superb quality on the ball, who took a while to settle in at Valencia until a loan spell with Atletico Madrid allowed him to rediscover his form.
But Banega's career took a turn for the worse in a bizarre off-field incident in February of this year. Having forgotten to put the handbrake on his car, it then ran over his leg and caused a fracture that kept him out for 8 months. Shortly after this mishap, his brand new Ferrari set on fire and ‘burnt to a crisp’. It is fair to say Banega has not had the best of luck in 2012.
The Argentine has been itching to get back and before coming back for the Athletic game, Banega told the Valencia official website: "I’m filled with desire to get back playing after this long injury. I am already ready and prepared to play and this is the most important thing. I have worked and suffered a lot to be able to return for Valencia.”
Banega's introduction to the game on Saturday evening was met with a stunning round of applause and the crowd noticeably upped the volume inside Estadio Mestalla, urging their team to grab an equaliser, and Banega's return lifted the fans’ spirits.
And the substitution worked. After Banega was brought on, Valencia went on to win the game and now under-fire boss Mauricio Pellegrino has a key player back in his side – crucial given their underwhelming start.
They are winning at home but struggling on the road, and as Pellegrino starts to feel the heat in his first managerial job, the return of Banega will be a welcome boost. The central midfield partnerships in Pellegrino's 4-2-3-1 system have seen various combinations of David Albelda, Tino Costa, Fernando Gago and Dani Parejo, but the hope for everyone will be that Banega reaches full fitness soon and becomes a constant in the Valencia midfield.
Pellegrino himself was happy with the display against Athletic, but singled out the return of Banega as a particular positive from the game.
“Our template was better, we had less players injured, with the return of those coming from America or the return of Ever Banega. It was a nice victory for the fans.”
It will take time for Banega to really hit top speed, and after such a traumatic year you have to wonder whether he will ever return to the level he was at. But for the fans and the coaching staff, having a player of his calibre will be a boost to everyone, and it could provide the kick-start that Valencia's season has been crying out for.
After a difficult start to his managerial career, Pellegrino will be comforted by the fact that Banega has faith in his boss, and delivered this vote of confidence.
“The season is long. Maybe the results are not what was expected, but we have to be calm. We are going to move forward,” he said.