Valencia beat Real Madrid 2-1 at the Mestalla on Wednesday to end Zinedine Zidane’s undefeated return as Los Blancos manager.
The result put Los Che only one point off fourth place, while Real now sit 13 points behind leaders Barcelona.
But what did we learn from the huge LaLiga fixture as the season reaches its exciting final stages?
1. José Luis Gayà is LaLiga’s most underrated player
There were plenty of outstanding performers on the Valencia team but one man who shone yet again is José Luis Gayà. It’s high time for some praise to go the way of the 23-year-old, who is comfortably the second best left-back in LaLiga this season behind Jordi Alba.
Sound in his anticipation, tireless in his runs up and down the flank, and not scared to take a no-nonsense approach to clearances where necessary, the full-back gave Madrid nothing down his side.
The consistency the Valencian has shown this season – be it in the big games like Wednesday’s or the smaller ones that define a league season – stands in stark contrast to his opposite number in the Madrid shirt.
Los Blancos have intermittently showed interest in Gayà over the course of his career, and if they’re looking for someone to immediately replace Marcelo then his name has to be in the mix. Likewise Atlético Madrid, with the imminent departure of Filipe Luis.
Yet another excellent footballer from Valencia’s long production line of quality left-backs, Gayà looks fit to follow in the footsteps of Alba and Juan Bernat.
2. Sign a centre-forward or Real Madrid will waste another year
Karim Benzema has been a vital player for Real Madrid in his almost ten years at the club, and with an increased return in front of goal this season he has escaped admirably well from a campaign in which many others shied away.
But as a 31-year-old with more than 600 senior games under his belt, it is clear the Frenchman can’t be expected to do it on his own these days.
Though he got a consolation goal with the last kick of the game, for well over an hour against Valencia the number nine barely touched the ball – there wasn’t even any of the running from deep that Benzema is known for, likely a sign of tired legs.
Yet when Zidane started to ring the changes there was never realistically the option of taking the veteran off and replacing him with another central striker. The only other player Madrid have in that position is the still unproven Mariano, and only affording the summer signing 13 minutes on the pitch says much about Zidane’s confidence in him.
Had Madrid signed another established, quality central striker last summer things may have gone differently against Valencia as well as many other games this season. The same mistake surely can’t be made again.
It wouldn’t even necessarily mean breaking the bank.
Raúl de Tomás, scorer of 12 goals and counting on loan at Rayo Vallecano, is already on the club’s books. If the Madrid academy product can hit double figures in LaLiga at one of the worst teams in the country (where he often has to create as well as finish), imagine what he could do as a supporting player with some quality service at the Bernabéu.
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3. Valencia are a big team once again
If Valencia’s return to the top four for the first time since 2015 last year was their rebirth, then this season is proving to be the consolidation.
Granted, the campaign started slower than Marcelino’s men expected, but their results in all competitions post-Christmas have been consistently excellent – suggesting one of Spain’s biggest clubs are back for good.
In the year of their centenary, Los Che have reached their first Copa del Rey final in 10 years, have an excellent chance of reaching the Europa League semi-finals thanks to a familiar tie with relegation battlers Villarreal, while they are also only one point off fourth place in the league.
The way they have cut the gap on Getafe has been particularly impressive; in four days Marcelino’s team faced two of the trickiest opponents in the country, Sevilla and Real Madrid, and defeated both.
The wind is in their sails, they have a coach with a philosophy that fits the club, the Mestalla crowd is behind them, and their squad is clearly built to compete in multiple competitions.
Few would now bet against Valencia becoming the first team other than LaLiga’s big three to register back-to-back top four finishes since Los Che last pulled it off way back in 2011.