Managers in line of fire

Managers in line of fire

Football : For most coaches in Spain, its a battle of survival with their fortunes hinging on their team's success

Managers in line of fire

Outside of the glamour and the riches of both clubs in Madrid and FC Barcelona, managing in the Spanish league is about the struggle to survive. Late last Saturday, after Valencia eked out a nervous 2-1 victory over Espanyol, the two head coaches -- Valencia's Gary Neville and Espanyol's Constantin Galca -- found one another on the sidelines. Their handshake turned briefly into a sympathetic embrace between opponents who are both fighting to keep their jobs -- and to keep their teams in La Liga.

As players, Neville, 40, and Galca, 43, appeared in more than 1,000 top-level games. They know what it is like to step out into Mestalla Stadium in Valencia, where little more than a decade ago, the roar of the home crowd could make the cavernous concrete bowl throb with excitement as fans cheered on a team that was among the best in Europe. The old stadium still is one of Spain's most evocative venues, and the crowd still numbers about 50,000 per game.

But it has been a rough first two months for Neville since he took over December 2. There was the debacle of a 7-0 loss to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, and Saturday marked the first time he had won a league game.

"There can be a hurricane on the outside, but you have to be in the eye of the storm inside," Neville had said of the pressure he is facing in Valencia.

There was a breaking point to his demeanor last Saturday. Rage poured out of him as his defenders failed to keep the order he relentlessly maintained in more than 600 games as a Manchester United fullback, along with disbelief that the players chosen by him came close to giving away another game.

That they did not -- that they narrowly averted defeat this time -- brought relief, but no celebration.

Neville, an Englishman, stepped straight from his role as television analyst, assessing the mistakes of other coaches, into the cauldron in Spain.

He has his coaching credentials, but he had never before taken charge of a team, not even Salford City, the minor-league team he co-owns along with his brother Phil, three other former Manchester United team-mates and the Singaporean Peter Lim.

Lim is key to Neville's life at the moment. He owns Valencia and appointed the Neville brothers as coach and assistant coach after Nuno Espírito Santo walked away in November.

Starting this week, the Nevilles will get a helping hand in the coaching department from Pako Ayestarán, who assisted Rafael Benítez from 2001 to 2004, when Valencia won two league titles.

On Saturday, Gary Neville was by himself on the sidelines. Though he tried to maintain a calm exterior, he was visibly dependent upon others to play for him.

Saturday marked the return of Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves, who missed nine months with a knee injury. The Brazilian steadied the team with a fantastic and instinctive one-handed save early in the game, but after 52 minutes, he failed to reach a corner kick, and Óscar Duarte powerfully headed Espanyol into the lead.

Almost 20 minutes passed before Valencia would score -- 20 minutes of struggle and fear that showed the immense gulf between what Barcelona and Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid can achieve, and what all the other clubs in Spain cannot.

Then the game turned. Álvaro Negredo came off Valencia's bench to strike the tying goal -- or rather, to force it across the line by way of a fortunate deflection.

Just as he shot, Duarte, the hero for Espanyol earlier, rushed in front of Negredo to try to block the kick. The ball ricocheted off Duarte, giving his own goalkeeper no chance of making the save.

Within six minutes, Denis Cheryshev, a Russian player on loan to Valencia from Real Madrid, flung himself toward the ball and headed what turned out to be the winning goal from seven yards.

Relief for all those on the Valencia side and despair for Espanyol, which now hovers alarmingly close to the drop zone of La Liga.

Galca, a Romanian, has barely had more time as manager to try to reverse his team's slide than Neville has had at Valencia. There were media reports before the game that Espanyol's new owner -- the Chinese businessman Chen Yansheng, who purchased the club in late January -- had already decided a change of coach was required.

Chinese clubs have made a splash recently buying players from top European clubs. Now Chinese owners are starting to gain influence in the European leagues. According to the Catalan news media, Chen's people had already earmarked the experienced José Antonio Camacho to replace Galca. Camacho is a former Espanyol manager who coached China's national team from 2011 to 2013.

Espanyol's players intervened, pleading with Chen that the recent losses were their fault, not the coach's. Gallant as that might be, they still lost a vital game on Saturday that they could have won.

Right to the last minute, the points could have gone either way. Espanyol was marginally the better of the two clubs, both of whom are living precariously on the edge.

Neville took little succor from Valencia's first league victory since Nov 7. "I think what the game tells us today is football isn't about putting on the best performance," he told reporters. "But today we got the result. The most incredible bit was the fans stayed with us, they stayed with every single player, they stayed with me.

"It's not down to the tactics, it's not down to the coach. It's down to the fans and the way they responded after the goal. The game turned into an emotional game; the fans were pushing us forward, throwing us forward."
The perfect storm in Valencia.