During his three-and-a-half years as a Sky TV pundit, Gary Neville repeatedly went off-piste from his Premier League analysis to talk about Atletico Madrid, usually as a prime example of a point he was trying to make. Diego Simeone’s team seem to embody much of what Neville believes the game should be about, particularly in terms of tactical discipline.
So it’s reasonable to assume Neville has thought long and hard about Atleti away from the cameras over the past few years, their strengths and weaknesses, and how you might attempt to beat them. This isn’t just another opponent to whom he assigns one of his video analysts a few weeks in advance and recalls to work on a detailed game plan in the week leading up to kick-off.
Therefore, we might consider this our first real opportunity to stop viewing the former Manchester United defender in terms of his limitations and the challenges of working in a different culture. Instead, here’s the chance for him to showcase his capabilities as the shrewd big-match tactician we all thought he was destined to be. There’s mileage in the 15/4 available on Valencia to win.
Forget the nine league games he failed to win at the start of his Mestalla tenure. The whole dynamic has subsequently changed with the arrival of Pako Ayestarán as first team coach, which is having an exponential effect on the quality of training sessions and match preparation. The message of what Neville is trying to do is coming across better and much quicker.
It still requires a leap of faith to say Valencia are ready to beat Atlteico Madrid but it’s a leap I’m prepared to take because I’ve seen Los Che entertain the big teams at Mestalla too many times to write them off on account of form and relative positions. When the crowd are whipped up, as they will be tonight, it’s not an easy to place to retain your usual composure.
This season, Barcelona and Real Madrid have both failed to win at Mestalla, the Blaugrana held to a 1-1 draw with Neville looking down from the stands, the Merengues lucky to escape with a 2-2 scoreline a few weeks after he had been installed as manager. Last season, Atletico were beaten 3-1 here. In the Simeone era, their league record comprises of two defeats in three visits.
The Colchoneros’ defensive record this term is nothing short of phenomenal - 13 clean sheets in 17 matches, 11 league goals conceded all season, just five goals in 14 away - but who's to say those numbers are sustainable, and it tells us nothing about how vulnerable they are when conceding first. Obviously, banking on Valencia breaking the deadlock with any bet on them to prevail.
In recent weeks, Los Che have naturally gravitated back to the 4-3-3 system with which they enjoyed success under former boss Nuno and a high-intensity pressing game was crucial to last season’s success in this fixture, when they scored three times inside the opening 19 minutes.
One assumes that particular game has been a big point of reference for Neville in the build-up to this. With that thought in mind, a bet on the Valencia/Valencia double result at 17/2 is also recommended. We simply don’t see enough of Atletico chasing games to know how they will cope if they go behind, no matter how early.
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