Primera Liga in focus: Valencia, intent on battling Barca and Real, need new saviours

Spain’s most demanding supporters turned against their Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo at the start of the season and have not relented, vocalising “he must go” at every opportunity.

Jose Gaya, left, and Valencia fell flat against Oleg Shatov and Zenit in Uefa Champions League group play on Tuesday and have not been much better in Primera Liga, with fans chanting for Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo to be fired at home games. Anatoly Maltsev / EPA
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The 50 Valencia fans in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday were mostly local Russians supporting the club who sit third in Spain's all-time league table. Standing in minus-0°C temperatures, it was a rare chance for them to see their heroes, not that there was much heroic about Los Che as they slipped to another defeat.

Valencia’s manager and players were spared the criticism that has been consistent from the crowd this season.

Spain’s most demanding supporters turned against their Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo at the start of the season and have not relented, vocalising “he must go” at every opportunity.

When they drew against Las Palmas on Sunday, the flak was fierce in the last 10 minutes of the match, with fans all around the sheer-sided venue waving hankies in disgust.

Valencia’s talented players do not seem inspired by their coach, whose perceived arrogance has made too many enemies at the Mestalla.

Nuno did not oppose the departures of club president Amadeo Salvo in the close season, nor sporting director Francisco Rufete and his head scout, Roberto Ayala, both of them former Valencia players and idols.

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Their exits were not popular as the power at the club is now completely held by non-Spaniards.

The local heroes have been using the influential local media to keep jabbing away at Nuno.

Any manager needs a power base at a club, people who will support him, but Nuno has alienated potential allies. The enthusiasm and charisma that came with his arrival has long ago dissipated.

The sale of Nicolas Otamendi, their best defender last season, was the latest in a long line of expensive and unpopular sales.

Nuno’s assistant, Phil Neville, walked into a troubled club, yet Neville is very popular with the players, has worked hard to learn Spanish and is enjoying living in Spain.

Valencia are seventh and only two points off a Uefa Champions League position that would represent relative success. They beat in-form Celta Vigo 5-1 in their last away match, but that result only briefly masked the problems of an unpopular coach and a team who have conceded the most goals in the top 10.

Valencia are also third in their Champions League group and need to beat eliminated Lyon in their final game in two weeks while hoping that Genk do not become the first team to take points off Zenit.

It is doable, though Valencia’s run of fixtures is formidable.

They are away at Sevilla this weekend, then face a potential banana-skin cup tie at in-form Basque third-tier team Barakaldo.

The current Valencia players look like they lack faith in the manager to go to Bilbao midweek in December and get a result.

Then come Barcelona at home, when the fans likely will turn on Valencia’s Singaporean owner Peter Lim, who is expected at the game.

He is the man heralded as a saviour when he arrived in 2014 after the club had been on their financial uppers for years. Lim also linked up with agent Jorge Mendes to use Valencia as a platform to showcase his emerging talents.

That can work when such talents are excelling, but Valencia are a huge club who think they should be battling with Barcelona and Madrid, not acting as a shop window for potential suitors.

Some Valencia fans will not be satisfied until they are winning titles again.

They were not sated when Unai Emery led them to three successive third-place finishes.

That is as much as Valencia can hope for at present, not that Nuno is likely to be in the job long enough to find out.

RELAXED BARCELONA TAKE IT ONE DAY AT A TIME

Daniel Alves walked out of Barcelona's dressing room after Tuesday's 6-1 rout of Roma, the record victory in Europe for a Spanish team over an Italian.

The Brazilian was dressed in black and white and wore tight clothes which appeared to restrict his movement.

Walking like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, the Brazilian was all smiles, just as he had been in the dressing room as he posed for photos with Spanish MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo.

Alves’s fashion sense could be used as a stick to beat him with if his team were losing, as could the relaxed dressing-room selfies players regularly post to social media, the type that would have made an old-school manager like Sir Alex Ferguson bristle.

Luis Enrique is a hard taskmaster, but cuts his charges slack and appreciates that he is from a different generation.

Eccentricities are encouraged in this Barcelona dressing room.

The players make each other smile in a way Ronaldinho once did by using rubbish bins as impromptu drums.

Lionel Messi’s relationship with his fellow strikers has not always been as positive as his coach would have hoped, but Luis Enrique has nothing to worry about now. The club’s overpowering front-line trio – known as “the trident” in Catalonia – enjoy a superb relationship.

They came back together on Tuesday as Lionel Messi made his first start in two months.

The three have scored more goals in 2015 than the entire Real Madrid team, an astonishing 121 against 106.

Only Bayern Munich have scored more as a team in Europe than Barcelona’s three South American strikers.

When Barcelona’s players post pictures, they are effusive and matey in their comments.

Speaking with journalists, they are more cautious and careful not to be seen as arrogant. Youngsters Sergi Samper and multi-lingual Ivan Rakitic were the players who spoke to journalists after the Roma win.

“We’re enjoying ourselves being on the pitch,” Rakitic said. “Not just attacking together but defending together, we feel strong all over the pitch.

“Still, the end of the season is a long way away and there are games at the end of the season when trophies will be won. While we’re obviously very happy, we’re taking things one game at a time.”

Such measured, sensible words from an intelligent man do not really do justice to Barca’s brilliance on the field.

GAME OF THE WEEK - Atletico Madrid v Espanyol

With attention fixed on el clasico, Atletico Madrid’s win at Real Betis meant they moved up to second with minimum notice. Diego Simeone’s side are unbeaten in six league games and have lost only two out of 12. They have also played Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Villarreal, Sevilla and Depor. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco has showed himself to be a fine close season signing. They face Espanyol on Saturday.

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