The entire footballing world was shocked in December when the news broke that Gary Neville had been appointed as head coach of Valencia for the remainder of the current campaign. To say that Neville has endured a tough time in his first managerial role would be a grave understatement.
His first match in charge resulted in the Spanish club being knocked out of the Champions League and he failed to win any of his first nine league games. Despite the terrible form, Neville stayed true to his methods and beliefs, and the past few weeks have seen a huge upturn in both performances and results.
Luck has been on Los Che’s side in their current five-game unbeaten run, which includes a draw against European giants Barcelona and the 6-0 demolition of Rapid Vienna on Neville’s birthday. However, the former Sky Sports pundit has also benefitted from having a near-fully fit squad to choose from for the first time since he took the job.
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On the final day of last season, in what was his 100th league appearance for Valencia, Diego Alves tore his knee ligament against former club Almeria. Having undergone surgery and a full rehabilitation process, he spent a total of nine months on the sidelines.
Earlier this month the 30-year-old made his long-awaited returned to first-team action and he is proving once again why he is one of the best goalkeepers in La Liga.
Valencia’s undisputed no. 1 possesses incredible reflexes, a superb diving range and is widely regarded as the best saver of penalties in Europe. The Brazilian shot-stopper boasts the best penalty saving record in Spanish top flight history, keeping out 16 of the 37 penalites he’s faced, including one from Cristiano Ronaldo last term.
His contributions can be compared to those which David de Gea makes for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United. Like De Gea, when the opposition are on top and creating chance after chance, Alves makes crucial saves to keep his team in matches and ultimately, earn them points.
It’s no surprise that Valencia’s vastly improved form has coincided with the return to full fitness of star striker Paco Alcacer. The Spaniard scored 14 goals in all competitions last season and, despite his injury problems in the past few months, he’s already notched 11 times during this campaign.
Alcacer, who came through the youth ranks at Valencia, has great vision, excellent awareness when his back is to goal, and he is very clinical in front of goal. The 22-year-old has established himself as a regular in the Spanish national team since the 2014 World Cup, and he’s been lethal for his country, scoring six goals in just 11 appearances.
Despite his young age, Alcacer was named club captain by Neville in January, which is yet another indication of just how highly this talented Spaniard is rated. He is a player who undoubtedly has the potential to be world-class in a few years’ time.
Santi Mina has been thought of as a promising young talent for a while now but he is finally starting to have an impact on a more regular basis. The 20-year-old forward is blessed with talent, pace, quick feet, skill and guile in the final third.
Three days after Neville’s appointment was announced, Mina scored a late equaliser against Barcelona and, following his two goals and three assists against Rapid Vienna last week, Neville heaped praise onto the youngster.
He described Mina, who has had limited opportunities at the Mestalla this season, as a “fantastic professional” who trains hard and who wants to learn. The Valencia manager understands that young players will be inconsistent and need time to grow, so Mina could flourish under the Englishman between now and the end of the season.
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