Up until last season Valencia had held a firm grip on third place in La Liga but, having missed out on Champions League football last time out, Saturday night's 3-1 defeat to Espanyol demonstrated that new manager Miroslav Djukic still has plenty of work to do to return Los Che to the top four.
The former Real Valladolid manager seems intent to build his team around Ever Banega. Sat in front of Javi Fuego and Michel though, the Argentinian was hassled and harried by Espanyol, with Christian Stuani particularly effective in preventing him from controlling the game.
With Banega unable to dictate in the final third, Djukic required one of his other advanced players to create—unfortunately none proved particularly effective.
Jonas drifted inside to collect a through pass and tee up Helder Postiga to give Los Che an undeserved lead, but other than that he and Sofiane Feghouli on the right side, offered little width and little quality.
Postiga will likely score 15 goals for the club this season, but he's unable to affect play. He's a finisher.
Perhaps one encouraging sign for Djukic is Javi Fuego. The summer signing from Rayo Vallecano wasn't at his best against Espanyol—he gave the ball away in a couple of dangerous areas and was caught making more than one cynical foul—but there are obvious signs that indicate he knows his role.
Dropping back between the central defenders, Fuego tries to dictate the play from the back, while also being very vocal—an area where Valencia are lacking.
Alongside him was Michel who, despite plenty of energy and enthusiasm, lacked know-how on the ball and, with Oriol Romeu waiting on the bench, will need to lift his levels to maintain his place in the side.
Jeremy Mathieu was perhaps Djukic's biggest disappointment of the night though. The Frenchman is known to want to play at centre-back, but started at left-back, with Ricardo Costa and Adil Rami preferred inside. It's doubtful that he'll start at left-back again.
In the first half Espanyol enjoyed a lot of joy down their right side, with Pizzi allowed to exploit Mathieu and whip in several good crosses.
More concerns for Djukic defensively are that Espanyol's first two goals came from set plays and that, after only mustering one effort on target in their opening day win over Malaga, his side lacked a cutting edge when chasing the game.
At least Thievy's goal put them out of their misery at the end.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. Despite the defeat at Cornella, Djukic hasn't turned into a bad coach. Fuego will grow more, Banega will have better days and the arrival of Dorlan Pabon will increase the quality and competition for places in attack.
Youngsters like Juan Bernat, Jonathan Viera and Sergio Canales all possess great potential too.
Djukic's values and playing style are clear—even in defeat the system he wanted was obvious—and if he sticks to them Valencia will win more than they lose.
Will it be enough for a return to the Champions League, though?
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