Round 23 of the season saw Valencia host their nemesis Athletic Bilbao, a team that have caused Valencia numerous problems in recent seasons. We hadn't beaten them in the league since 2012, the infamous metre-offside goal in 2015 cost us third place and they knocked us out of the Europa league last season. However, this time Bilbao were sandwiched between Europa league games, while Valencia had had a full week's rest. If ever there was a time to end the jinx, this was it.
Bilbao had the better of the possession in the early period, though without doing a great deal with it. Valencia's first chance came in the fourth minute, with Zaza shooting wide. Bilbao's best chance came in the 11th minute, forcing a save from Alves. A minute later we were ahead after a great team effort. Enzo robbed the Bilbao defender and, before they could react, Zaza had slotted the ball to Orellana, who put a brilliant ball into the path of Nani, who made no mistake.
For most of the game after that, Valencia would be in control and for once, luck was on our side. An injury to a Bilbao player in the 29th minute meant they had to use up one of their subs, something that would prove critical later. Valencia's defence was solid, with the weaker links being Parejo and Alves. The former gave away two chances, committing a needless foul on the edge of the area and, later, trying to dribble the ball out and giving away possession in a dangerous position which resulted in a shooting chance for Bilbao. As for Alves, he seemed to be trying to be Rene Higuita/Manuel Neuer and one of these occasions resulted in a misplaced pass which Bilbao scored from. Luckily, it was offside, but it would be good to see less risks like this.
It looked like Valencia would be taking a deserved 1-0 lead into the break, only for the team to double it. Garay played the ball forward and nice passing triangle between Orellana, Parejo and Munir put Zaza through and he finished well, to end a 23-game streak without a goal. The big man had clearly been feeling the stress, as he shed a tear. He - and we - needed that goal.
Valencia were dominant in the second half. Valverde sent Iñaki Williams and Aduritz on. The latter has been a real thorn in our side in recent years, scoring in all of the previous five league games, as well as the goal which knocked us out of Europe. This time, though, our luck was in. Aduritz hopped off injured after barely 2 minutes on the pitch, leaving Bilbao with only 10 men for the last half hour. If there's any negative, it's that Valencia seem to take their foot off the gas in such situations, rather than crushing the opponent, much as Eibar did to us. Maybe it's understandable with 3 games in a 7-day period, starting with Real Madrid, from Wednesday. But a 4-0 win would do wonders for confidence. Such nitpicking aside, this is a crucial three points and a good performance. We are now 7 points clear of the relegation zone, with two teams between us and the drop.
The team clearly isn't there yet, as the Las Palmas defeat and home thrashings by Celta and Eibar showed, but the overall feeling is that we're going in the right direction and, under Voro playing more as a unit and with more effort than we did under Prandelli. A record of 3 wins, 2 draw and 2 defeats this year is a significant improvement on late 2016. Also of note: this is the first time since September 2015 we've kept consecutive clean sheets in the league.
Alves 7 - I criticised his Neuer antics and his distribution could also improve, but he made the stops he needed to.
Montoya 6.5 - quiet game, but no mistakes.
Garay 7 - good game, functioned well as part of a solid defence.
Mangala 7.5 - very good game. Cut out a number of shots and dangerous attacks.
Siquiera 6.5 - I'd have chosen Lato, but Siquiera had a decent enough game.
Enzo 7.5 - great game doing the box-to-box role we bought him for. Unless we can get a good alternative, we should keep him in the summer.
Parejo 5 - some good contributions in attack, but should not be anywhere near our box. Double pivot isn't for him.
Orellana 8.5 - man of the match for me. Great passing and effort. Looks a steal at 3 million.
Nani 7 - good game, but needs to be less selfish.
Zaza 7 - great to see him score and he put in a good effort harrying defenders. The problem is he seemed over eager and he needs to tone down the aggression and limit the sliding tackles. He only needs to mistime one of those for a card happy official to show him red. Lucky not to get booked in this game.
Munir 6.5 - good contribution in attack, but at times dallies too long on the ball.
Soler 6 - good to see him back and he'll now face competition in the midfield.
Cancelo 5.5 - he's been off-form of late and didn't look like an improvement on Montoya.
Bakkali N/A - would be good to see him get more than 7/8 minutes at the end.