[dropcap]E[/dropcap]uropean champions Real Madrid started 2015 with defeat last night, going down 2-1 to a resurgent Valencia side at the Mestalla.
The result ends a run of 22 straight victories for Carlo Ancelotti’s men and will be a cause for concern for the Santiago Bernabéu outfit given a tame second-half performance.
Valencia’s victory was their first against Madrid since 2009 and boosts the club’s chances of qualification for next season’s Champions League.
Interestingly Valencia have now beaten Madrid 43 times over the course of their 95-year history; more than any other Spanish club.
In the aftermath of the game, here are some tactical observations and talking points from the game.
Man-of-the-match Otamendi reminiscent of Roberto Ayala
Valencia were a force to be reckoned with in the early 2000’s, with two losing appearances in Champions League finals and a brace of La Liga titles for the Mestalla outfit.
Although those Los Che teams were blessed with some superb attacking talent, dominant Argentine central defender Roberto Ayala was the cornerstone of the successful side.
Fast forward to the current day and Valencia have another no-nonsense Argentine centre-half who was the deserved man-of-the-match against Madrid and out-jumped Sergio Ramos to head home the winning goal.
Nicolás Otamendi’s never-say-die attitude, aerial prowess despite limited height and organisation at the back for Valencia was reminiscent of performances put in by Ayala during the club’s pomp.
With compatriots Lucas Orbán and Enzo Pérez, alongside German World Cup winner Shkodran Mustafi, Valencia look to have shaken off the ‘soft touch’ moniker that has blighted their last ten years and are now a physically imposing team.
Cristiano Ronaldo scores again but has minimal impact on proceedings
Cristiano Ronaldo continued his breathtaking goalscoring form by netting a first-half penalty, taking the Portugal international to an astonishing 26 La Liga goals in 15 outings this season.
However, the former Manchester United attacker, who will hope to retain his Ballon d’Or accolade later this month, put in a forgettable display and was largely anonymous in Madrid’s attempts to get back into the game.
Although Ancelotti’s men as a team had a collective off day, it was characterised by their talisman’s meek showing, as Ronaldo failed to have any real impact on proceedings and certainly did not look like the best player on the planet.
José Gayá the latest in a recent tradition of attacking Valencia left-backs
Valencia coach Nuno surprisingly left 19-year-old left wing-back José Gayá on the bench, instead preferring Pablo Piatti, but the young Spaniard was introduced on 23 minutes as the Argentine suffered injury.
Gayá, who has started 15 games for Los Che this term in La Liga, immediately offered more energy, defensive discipline and quality distribution than Piatti and put in a tireless display.
His forward running limited the impact of Dani Carvajal, while the Valencia substitute picked his passes well and had an excellent game.
The Pedreguer-born wideman is seemingly ready to be the latest exciting left-back to make his name at the Mestalla, following in the footsteps of Jordi Alba and Juan Bernat.
It may still be early days for the 19-year-old, but the signs are there that he can be every bit as good as the Spanish international pair that preceded him in the Valencia team.
Isco continues to shine in Luka Modrić’s absence
Luka Modrić has developed into arguably Madrid’s most important player due to his work-rate, passing array and control over the side’s play while the team have the ball.
The European champions have coped excellently without the injured Croatian star in recent months, with the introduction of Isco in a deeper role the reason why.
Although Madrid’s midfield did not click into gear at the Mestalla, Isco’s individual showing was again impressive, with his first touch exemplary – he was easily his side’s best player.
Isco will surely be an important man for club and country in 2015 and has proven himself as more than an able deputy for Modrić.
Crowding the midfield negates Madrid’s possession game
Valencia boss Nuno opted to play a bespoke 3-4-1-2 formation against Madrid, with André Gomes in the number ten role, who dropped deeper to make a triumvirate in the centre of the park; the thinking was obviously to stifle the visitors’ gifted central midfield – and it worked.
Although Isco put in a determined performance, Madrid’s midfield struggled to break down a stubborn Valencia defensive unit with Pérez, Gomes and captain Dani Parejo in front of it.
Madrid may well have had 61 per cent of possession in the game but this was largely in non-dangerous areas, while usual pass-master Toni Kroos had a quiet game.
Valencia’s tactics will certainly be of interest to future opponents of Madrid, with the shackling of Los Blancos’ central midfield negating quality supply to the likes of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
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