Mike Holden previews Sunday's live La Liga clash between Real Betis and Valencia.
In the cold chamber of the Camp Nou press room on Wednesday night, straight after Valencia’s seven-goal humiliation at the hands of Barcelona, Gary Neville brushed off several questions about his future, then effectively gave himself an ultimatum: "Let me be clear," he said. "On Sunday, we have to deliver." But deliver what?
Neville’s position is already bordering on untenable. If he was any other manager - ie. one that didn’t have an outside relationship with owner Peter Lim - it would be hard to imagine him taking his position on the touchline at the Benito Villamarin. Lose this game, though, and even those privileged ties might not protect him.
However, it’s difficult to envisage how Valencia win this game. Confidence is shot. Key players are absent and most of those available just aren’t good enough. Too many youngsters who should be cutting their teeth gradually are being pushed as regular first-teamers. A lack of leadership is all too evident, as demonstrated by the ongoing search for a suitable captain.
No single player is going to drag this team out of its slumber, so it has to be a collective effort. And one assumes the primary focus of that collective effort is to avoid defeat at all costs. At the Camp Nou, Valencia’s defending was far too passive but, on the whole, away from home, they’ve kept a fairly tight ship.
League trips to Eibar (1-1), Villarreal (0-1), Real Sociedad (0-2) and Deportivo (1-1), averaging just 6.5 shots on target combined per game, had unders stamped all over them from start to finish, while that run was interspersed with clean sheets at Granada and Las Palmas in the Copa del Rey. So Los Che do have it in them to complete a shut-out.
However, there’s virtually no grounds for backing them to win the game. My 16-match ratings make Betis clear favourites, albeit not by a big enough margin to justify backing them at 17/10 to overcome a wave of renewed determination from the visitors. The Verdiblancos are winless in nine themselves, after all.
So it all points to a bet on 'no goalscorer' at 8/1. Betis failed to score in six straight matches prior to Pepe Mel’s dismissal and added a seventh in Juan Merino’s first game as caretaker, which was a creditable 0-0 at Villarreal. Merino himself is a proud clean sheet merchant and it’s worth noting that the Andalusians kept Real Madrid at bay for 71 minutes only a fortnight ago.
That 1-1 draw with Zinedine Zidane’s men was the only time in 18 league matches, going back to the start of December, when these two teams (combined) have managed to break a deadlock, and their desire to avoid going behind here might just bring them both a clean sheet. The price on a goalless stalemate isn’t one to be sniffed at.
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