On the eve of his departure to Singapore to meet with Valencia owner Peter Lim over his impending announcement as manager of the club, Pako Ayestaran spoke to Gary Neville over the phone, seeking his predecessor’s blessing. “It was uncomfortable because Gary was excellent with me and he was ultra-professional,” he recalls.
In fact, little did he know, the Englishman had already recommended the former Liverpool assistant take up the vacancy, insisting he was the best man for the job. But it was not meant to be.
Just three months prior to that exchange, the Englishman, aware of the complexity of the task ahead, pleaded with Ayestaran to come to his aid. He did, but should the project fail, and both would be shown the exit. He says, “We even put a clause in the contract that stated that if Gary went, I would go too.”
Impressive start as manager
Instead, Ayestaran stayed on, first as caretaker, then as manager. The 53-year-old was an obvious choice; he knew the club back to front and was Rafael Benitez’s assistant during their glorious Primera Division triumph back in season 2003-04. The fans loved him too.
Not to mention the fact that he started on a high, winning his first three matches in charge, culminating in a 2-1 win over Barcelona away at the Camp Nou and a crushing 4-0 victory over Eibar.
Following his official appointment, Ayestaran claimed he was going to build a Valencia side with clear values, a side which the entire autonomous community could be proud of. Six months on and four matches into the campaign, Valencia are the worst team in Spain and have yet to pick up a single point. No one was proud of this, no one was enjoying this.
Sharp decline in results
Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to Athletic Bilbao at San Mames was the final straw. Apart from an early goal from Alvaro Medran, due to some poor defending on the host’s part, Los Che rarely threatened. In defence, as they so often do, they looked off the pace, ill-disciplined and out of shape.
Bilbao’s attack were offered too much space on far too many occasions, and at times, pressed with no sense of urgency and, on-loan defender Mangala seemed a liability. Up front, chances are few and far between and yet, in the odd instance where a midfielder carves up a clear-cut opportunity, the attackers fail to capitalise.
Historically, after four matches, Valencia have often been higher up the table and strong starters to the league. This time last season, they were seventh; before that, they were second. Now, though, they are last and off to their worst start in the club’s history.
Statistically, the last three teams that endured such a horrific start – Osasuna, Sporting Gijon and Xerez – were all eventually relegated. And after four games, the Mestalla outfit could already be fighting for survival.
When you take into account that they finished last season with three consecutive defeats, albeit against tough opponents in Villarreal, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, the club have lost seven straight La Liga matches, their worst ever run in the top-flight, and a nightmare that looks far from coming to a halt.
Promising performances but can’t put the finishing touch
Strangely, though, while Valencia have been far from their best, they have not been bad enough to have lost all four of their games thus far. In fact, at times, they’ve looked rather promising. Against La Palmas, Los Che should’ve gotten more from their 4-2 loss on the opening weekend.
Following that, the side failed to convert promising chances in the first half and lost 1-0 to Eibar, from a Pedro Len penalty, and should’ve claimed a last gasp victory after coming from two goals down against Real Betis, only for their opponents to pip them at the finish.
But if anything, it’s inconsistencies like these that have plagued a side which, on paper, promises so much yet offers so little.
While Alvaro Negredo was shipped out on loan, Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer sold to Barcelona and defensive stalwart Shkodran Mustafi – who the club insisted would not be sold – moved to Arsenal, Valencia still boast a decent line-up of Nani, Martin Montoya, Ezequiel Garay, Eliaquim Mangala, Mario Suarez and so forth – players who are genuine match-winners, and really should be fighting for a Champions League spot.
Instead, Valencia find themselves dwindling in the lower echelons of Spain’s top-tier, potentially fighting for survival in what could well be a long season. Ayestaran, the experienced assistant and fan favourite, was supposed to bring in a breath of fresh air and fresh ideas.
Yet, statistically, fared worse than Neville and has picked up 10 points of a possible 36. The club still lack any clear direction and have become more fragile as time progresses.
The road ahead for Valencia
Valencia’s poor form has seen club legend Mario Kempes make a plea for the position. “It’s very worrying what’s happening with this Valencia without projects or ideas, and what we’re seeing is pure footballing impotence,” the commentator wrote on Twitter. “In response to those who ask for me to become the coach of Valencia, I would with all my desire, so long as they ask me.”
Now, Ayesteran is gone and, as unfair as his sacking may seem – according to himself anyway – he only has himself to blame.
Instead of assisting the side out of the seemingly deep hole, the former manager has only further deepened the crisis and left his successor, whether it be Kempes or another tactician, an even greater task at hand.Published 22 Sep 2016, 15:33 IST