Real Madrid coach Rafael Benitez endured an unhappy return to Mestalla as Gary Neville’s Valencia twice came from behind to salvage a point in a pulsating 2-2 draw on Sunday.
Benitez needed a win amid doubts about his future at the club and Madrid had got off to a flying start thanks to a brilliant team goal finished off by Karim Benzema.
However, Valencia levelled through Dani Parejo’s penalty just before half-time and the visitors were left to play the final 20 minutes with 10 men as Mateo Kovacic was shown a straight red card.
Gareth Bale’s brilliant header restored Madrid’s lead for barely a minute before Paco Alcacer rescued a point for Valencia eight minutes from time.
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A draw leaves Neville still looking for his first La Liga win in four games since taking charge of Valencia last month.
Madrid, meanwhile, are now four points adrift of leaders Atletico Madrid and two behind Barcelona having also played a game more than the European champions.
Benitez has been publicly backed by Madrid president Florentino Perez, but media reports in recent weeks have suggested French legend and the club’s reserve team coach Zinedine Zidane could be promoted to the top job at the Bernabeu if results don’t improve.
“I can’t avoid other people speculating. All I can do is ensure the team works like it did today,” said Benitez.
“They players put in a huge effort and unfortunately it wasn’t enough for the three points.”
Neville, meanwhile, recognized his side need to start winning soon to have any chance of making the Champions League next season.
“It was the best performance we have had and it still doesn’t feel like enough,” he said.
“What I am more interested in is playing like that all the time. We need to turn those performances into results starting with Granada on Wednesday (in the Copa del Rey).”
Colombian star James Rodriguez was dropped to the bench by Benitez days after he was pursued by the police to the club’s training ground accused of speeding at up to 124 miles per hour.
– Hero’s welcome –
But in contrast to his recent receptions at the Santiago Bernabeu, Benitez was given a hero’s welcome on his return to the Mestalla after guiding Valencia to two La Liga titles in three years over a decade ago.
And Benitez couldn’t have wished for a better start as Benzema was fed by a lovely interchange of passes between Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to slot home his 16th goal in 17 appearances this season.
However, in keeping with many games this season, Benitez’s men failed to maintain their early intensity and allowed Valencia to take control as the first half progressed.
Madrid had been awarded three controversial penalties in their last two matches, but were left feeling hard done by just before the break when Bale thought he had been chopped down inside the area.
Valencia immediately broke up the other end and were awarded a spot-kick when Pepe dived in on Andre Gomes and former Madrid midfielder Parejo converted the resulting penalty.
Madrid were left with a mountain to climb 20 minutes from time when Kovacic recklessly took out Cancelo and was shown a straight red card.
Despite their numerical disadvantage Bale’s brilliant looping header from Toni Kroos’s free-kick put the visitors back in the driving seat.
Yet, they again couldn’t defend a lead as 60 seconds later Alcacer headed home from Rodrigo’s knockdown to preserve Valencia’s unbeaten home record in La Liga stretching back to November 2014.
And it should have been even better for Valencia as Alvaro Negredo failed to beat Navas when clean through on goal in stoppage time.
Neville’s men are now 13 points off the top four, though, as Villarreal strengthened their grip on the final Champions League place when Bruno Soriano’s penalty deep into stoppage time handed them a 2-1 win at Deportivo la Coruna.
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