Valencia are starting to enjoy their trips to the Bernabeu.
Last season, a goalless draw saw them become the only visiting side to keep a clean sheet at the nerve-inspiring home of Real Madrid, and on Sunday night they started the new campaign with another hard fought draw thanks largely to a superb display by goalkeeper Diego Alves.
For Madrid, it was an unwanted early blow to their hopes of retaining the title, and Jose Mourinho will be left to reflect on a surprisingly disjointed performance.
Mourinho elected to start with Gonzalo Higuain in attack instead of Karim Benzema, and the manager’s selection was vindicated inside 10 minutes when the Argentine netted the opener. It was a case of third time lucky for Higuain – after collecting a lofted through ball from Angel Di Maria, the unlucky Alves made two smart saves only for Higuain to eventually thrash it in.
Madrid dominated possession as the visitors looked to play on the break, but chances were few and far between with Cristiano Ronaldo well shackled by fellow Portuguese international Joao Pereira.
Valencia got back on level terms shortly before the break with one of their few attacks of the evening. Tino Costa whipped in a superb inswinging free-kick, and Jonas timed his run perfectly to power a header into the empty net with Iker Casillas off his line.
Worse for Madrid, Casillas and central defender Pepe suffered an almighty collision in the process of attempting to defend the free-kick, and Pepe had to be replaced at half time by Raul Albiol.
Real lacked fluency at the start of the second half, although Di Maria should have scored when he ran onto a sweeping move down the right wing only to scuff his shot badly wide.
It was scrappy stuff, with neither team able to retain possession and the action punctuated by a series of petty fouls. Something had to change, so it was no surprise when Mourinho introduced Benzema just after the hour.
The extra man in attack immediately gave Madrid greater cutting edge, and within minutes they were nearly back in front when Di Maria’s cross was headed onto the bar by Higuain. Then Mesut Ozil had a driven shot palmed away by Alves, Benzema saw his low effort saved at the near post, and another home goal was starting to look inevitable as corner followed corner.
But the fifteen-minute burst of pressure fizzled out and Valencia started to look relatively comfortable – until Alves had to make arguably the save of the night to keep out a thumping effort by Benzema. That was the last significant action, leaving new Valencia boss Mauricio Pellegrino to celebrate a resolute defensive display.
Things don’t get much easier for Valencia: after hosting newly promoted Deportivo at the Mestalla next weekend, their next away trip will send them to face Barcelona.
At least Los Che have the silver lining of immediately getting the season’s two toughest games out of the way with a point already on the board. Real have an even more imminent date at the Nou Camp – Mourinho’s men will travel to Catalonia for the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Thursday evening.
After this performance, the reigning champions will enter the first Clasico of the new season with their confidence somewhat dented.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Diego Alves (Valencia)
Deserved a clean sheet for his performance and will struggle to play better all season. Was desperately unlucky to see Higuain score the opener after a fine double save but from then on in, Madrid just couldn’t find a way past the Brazilian.
It was one of those nights when everything stuck and his stop from Benzema in the second half was of the highest order. His side played well but without Alves they would have struggled to win a point.
A frustrating night for Madrid but there shouldn’t be too much to concern Mourinho other than some questionable set-piece defending and Lassana Diarra who, after being surprisingly selected, did little to suggest why the club should hold on to him.
For Valencia, there was some fine defensive work outside of Alves’ heroics while Fernando Gago and Tino Costa have formed a solid understanding in midfield.sport360.