Neville backs Valencia

Neville backs Valencia
Valencia's assistant manager Phil Neville (left) watching young midfielder Andre Gomes making a pass during training.
PHOTO: Valencia Football Club

He was once part of Manchester United's famous "Class of 92" youngsters who went on to dominate English football from the mid 1990s to the early 2000s.

So, when Phil Neville says he is excited about the young guns of Spanish club Valencia - whose assistant manager he is - one can be sure this must be a special bunch.

So special, in fact, that the former England international tips the Peter Lim-owned outfit to achieve Spanish football's Mission Impossible - win the Primera Liga - with those youths.

Besides Atletico Madrid's shock triumph in the 2013-14 season, the duopoly of Real Madrid or Barcelona have finished top every year since the 2003-04 campaign - when Valencia won the last of their six top-flight titles.

Atletico's purported one-off success - inspired by then-rising talents like Thibaut Courtois, Koke and Diego Costa - has provided a blueprint for toppling the big boys, according to Neville.

"Atletico showed that, with young, talented and hungry players who have no fear, you can win La Liga," the 38-year-old said in an exclusive phone interview with The Straits Times on Wednesday, ahead of tomorrow's league opener away to Rayo Vallecano.

"At Valencia, we have that same mentality too. The club has so much positive energy after finishing fourth last year.

"We feel the title is possible this season with what we have."

With an average age of 24.06 years, Valencia had the youngest squad among Europe's top five leagues last season.

Their key players - Shkodran Mustafi, 23, Joao Cancelo, 21, Paco Alcacer, 21, Jose Gaya, 20, Rodrigo Moreno, 24, and Andre Gomes, 21 - are all below that average age.

Most importantly, Los Che have kept the promising crop together, resisting bids from Europe's elite for marauding left-back Gaya and silky playmaker Gomes.

The only key loss was centre-back Nicolas Otamendi, who has moved to Manchester City for around £34 million (S$75 million).

"If we get back into the Champions League on a regular basis, we can attract better players and further strengthen what is already a formidable line-up," Neville noted.

The six-time English Premier League winner raised a few eyebrows when he uprooted his family from Manchester to Spain's east coast last month, signing a three-year contract with Valencia.

"I would not have left England for any other club - I wanted to be part of Peter's ambitious project," said the former defender, referring to the Singapore billionaire with whom he also shares business dealings off the field.

"I just love being on the field, working with players, that's where my speciality is."

The Bury native takes two-hour Spanish lessons daily, and is already conducting video analysis sessions with the squad in his adopted tongue.

He also runs first-team training sessions in tandem with highly-rated manager Nuno Santo.

"The Nevilles are settling in well - my wife (Julie) is already conversing with the locals, my son (Harvey, 13) has joined the Valencia academy and my daughter (Isabella, 11) starts school next week," he said.

He seeks advice regularly from Real Sociedad manager David Moyes, under whom he played at Everton and later served as part of his coaching staff during the Scot's ill-fated season at United.

He said: "It's no secret that I want to be a manager myself one day.

"My goal now is to grow as a coach at Valencia and get them back to where they belong - top of European football."

 

FIVE LA LIGA CHALLENGERS

Ahead of the new Spanish Primera Liga season starting tomorrow, here is a look at five sides best placed to upset Barcelona and Real Madrid's dominance.

ATLETICO MADRID

Last season: 3rd

Atletico's title triumph in 2013-14 is the only time in the past 11 years that both Barca and Real Madrid have been denied the title. Diego Simeone's men look better placed to launch another title challenge now than they did 12 months ago, after a busy summer. The signings of strikers Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto to join forces with Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres in attack provide a frontline as deadly as when Radamel Falcao and Diego Costa were paired together in the early stages of Simeone's reign. Simeone also has a core of promising youngsters to call on, as Jose Maria Gimenez, Saul Niguez, Oliver Torres and Angel Correa are all expected to feature heavily.

The loss of Arda Turan to Barcelona will sap the midfield of some creativity, but unlike in previous seasons, Los Rojiblancos have been able to withstand big-money bids for the likes of Griezmann, Diego Godin and Koke to form a team capable of challenging for honours at home and abroad.

VALENCIA

Last season: 4th

Valencia's big investment last season to return to the Champions League has hamstrung their freedom in the transfer market this summer, as they have struggled to meet financial fair play regulations.

Moreover, Los Che have lost their most important player from last season in Nicolas Otamendi. The promising young talents of Santi Mina and Zakaria Bakkali add to an already impressive array of attacking talent, but coping with the demands of European football with a small squad means a return to the top four is likely to be the height of Valencia's ambition this season.

SEVILLA

Last season: 5th

Another Europa League title - their fourth in 10 years - provided a route back to the Champions League for Sevilla. But it also acted as a shop window for some of their stars to snap up bumper contracts on offer around Europe. As ever, the club appear to have dealt well with the money received from the sales of Aleix Vidal and Carlos Bacca, with eight new signings providing plenty of options for coach Unai Emery.

The capture of Ukrainian star Yevhen Konoplyanka on a free transfer from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk could prove to be the deal of the summer.

VILLARREAL

Last season: 6th

Villarreal signalled their intent to break into the top four with the double capture of the highly-rated Samu Castillejo and Samuel Garcia from Malaga for €16 million (S$25 million) and by bringing Roberto Soldado back to La Liga after a disastrous spell with Tottenham Hotspur.

However, with competition at the top of the table so stiff, Marcelino's men may target winning the Europa League as the most realistic route back into the Champions League.

ATHLETIC BILBAO

Last season: 7th

The high point of Athletic's season may have already come before the league campaign even gets under way, as they beat Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate to claim their first trophy in 31 years in the shape of the Spanish Super Cup.

An over-reliance on 34-year-old striker Aritz Aduriz makes a return to the top four unlikely, but the Basque club are always dangerous in Cup competitions and could go far once more in the Copa del Rey and Europa League.


This article was first published on Aug 21, 2015.
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