This is the first time in a really long while where we had no players on the injury list although Mareclino opted to leave out the most recent returns, Garay and Pereira, from the squad to ensure they are fully fit to play. Marcelino started with our strongest midfield with Guedes and Soler out on either side of the core formed by Kondogbia and Parejo. This has been the most effective midfield and it would prove so again. In defense, it remained unchanged from last game with the exception of Montoya replacing Vezo. This defensive line could get even stronger when Garay rejoins Murillo to form the partnership that was reliable and effective for us in the first half of the season. The front featured the most in form strikers, Rodrigo alongside Santi Mina who became our top scorer in the league last game.
The game started very even in the first few minutes with both sides still getting into the game. However, it was clear from the get go that Valencia was going to press the opposition hard even in their own half. This made it really hard for Betis to play from the back. The execution of this tactic was done really well especially by Kondogbia in midfield who would win almost all aerial battles from the resulting long clearances, as well as by dispossessing players all over using his strength. Betis still had a slight possession advantage early on but that's to be expected playing a counter-attacking style. Plus, they really could do nothing with their possession.
Our break would come 22 minutes into the half. The Betis defender made a run forward to start an attack on the right side (Neto's left) before a pass was intercepted by Gaya. He then picked out Guedes who took a few touches had a look up and played a long curling ball from the edge of our third. The trajectory of the ball fooled the Betis right-back sending him the wrong way. Rodrigo got the ball, took a gentle touch leaving Bartra in the dust, and ran with the ball to the opposite side and curled the ball past Adan. The pass itself was delightful, but coupled with Rodrigo's touch and great finish, it was altogether something else.
The lead in possession from Betis would extend but one effort they had on target was an easy one for Neto to save. Unfortunately, Santi Mina would pick up an injury under no challenge, so the injury list is not empty anymore. He would be replaced by Zaza who would prove useful from the get-go with the pressing game fitting his style.
Early in the second half, a Valencia attack started by Soler, found Rodrigo out on the right wing. His cross would bounce off a defender, Parejo tried to get the rebound but couldn't and possession returned to Betis. But not for long, as Kondogbia chased him down and won the ball back with his strength. As if that wasn't enough, he then carries the ball forward, looks up, send a precise lob to find Zaza in space. Zaza controls the ball well with his left foot and finishes with a low powerful shot between Adan's feet. He celebrated quietly and gestures mocking the critics. It was the first time, he's scored in the league since the Alaves game, 17 games ago. Hopefully, this boosts his confidence and we see the return of the hot form he was on in the first part of the season.
It was after that second goal that I felt the referee lost control of the game. I mean there was the yellow card on Montoya which shouldn't really have been in the first half but the second half was just horrible. Barragan who had been going for hard challenges on our players and who had already been booked for a hard challenge on Guedes in the first half, showed no sign of restraint. He kept up these challenges and I'm surprised he finished the game without being sent off. There was also a couple of shouts for a penalty from our end as Rodrigo had his shirt pulled in the box, and Zaza was straight up shoved over in the box when they had made runs into space. Those went unpunished. Gaya who had been lightly pulled made the most of it and fell in the penalty box but the referee didn't book him for diving. The biggest shout though was for the Betis disallowed goal due to push in the box. I got to say the push wasn't that significant, and unless I missed something else, it should've counted.
Betis would have one more really good chance with a back heel effort that was denied by Neto. Valencia managed to see out the rest of the game without too much trouble. For added measures, Coquelin replaced Soler to shore up the midfield and defense and could've scored one of his own as soon as coming on. Ferran Torres was also given a run out on the field in the last 10 minutes or so, replacing Rodrigo.
1-0 Rodrigo (23')
2-0 Zaza (47')
Neto 7 - wasn't really troubled at all by the Betis efforts in the first half. Nice reflex save on the Betis back-heel effort in the second half. He came out of his area a few times to claim crosses and loose balls, but on the Betis disallowed goal, where he should've come out and claimed the ball, he just stood still.
Montoya 7 - one of his better games, he wasn't troubled all too much,
Paulista 7.5 - great defensive work ethic, helped out his teammates on many occasions.
Murillo 6.5 - I still don't think he's back to his best form, it was a long injury. He's getting there but still had a few shaky moments.
Gaya 6 - mixed game, was great and times and poor at others. Won the ball back in the lead-up to the first goal but most of Betis's dangerous crosses came from his side. Going forward his crosses were lacking.
Parejo 7.5 - good composed passing, controlled possession and did well to press and win the ball back at times. He was definitely helped by being partnered with Kondogbia. As captain, he did well to give Zaza a talk and calm him down after he got booked.
Kondogbia 10 - I am so glad we get 15 million plus this guy for Cancelo. Whoever is responsible for that deal, should get a raise. What a game he had, he was everywhere, dispossessing player to win the ball back and starting a counter play, winning aerial battles. Not to mention a great assist for Zaza's goal.
Soler 7.5 - great job controlling the ball every time it lands at his feet. Makes the right decisions, almost always and rarely misplaces anything.
Guedes 9 - delightful to watch, he has a great touch, takes on players with ease and composure. Set up Rodrigo's goal beautifully with a curling long ball. The added creativity to the lineup from his and Soler's presences are what makes this midfield one of our greatest assets. I really hope he stays.
Mina - N/A - injured, hope he recovers soon.
Rodrigo 8 - great goal. He did well to not only control the ball well, but brush off Bartra with ease and maintained his composure to deliver a great finish. The best version of Rodrigo is the composed Rodrigo.
Zaza 8 - good to have him back on the score-sheet. Did well to control the pass from Kondogbia and finish with composure. The pressing style works well with him who naturally does it anyway. Also did well to maintain a controlled aggression, although Parejo may have helped calm him down which is important for him.
Coquelin 7 - having been on for only a few minutes, he manages to get into space and hit a great low shot to the far post and it took a great save to deny him.
Ferran N/A - not enough time.
Great, much needed win to not only distance ourselves from rivals but catch up to others. It may have helped restore confidence to Zaza who really needed it. It's a shame that Mina is out injured but hopefully the other strikers have built up enough confidence for next week's game against Sevilla.
Great performances from everyone all around, but stellar performances from Kondogbia and Guedes. It seems Marcelino has got the best out of both of them. Kondogbia especially, this game was outstanding and really did everything but score. They are also both really young and have potential to grow further which is really exciting. They have really helped shape our team and definitely added a lot and I think everyone would love to seem them join permanently. Although Kondogbia's deal is all but certain, Guedes is still an uncertainty, simply because of price tag. Hopefully, a strong finish to the season with Champions League qualifications as well as a few sales from loaned players can facilitate this.
All in all, it was a complete performance. There was some questionable refereeing in the second half for both sides and every side will plead this case but the win was absolutely deserved. If we play like this in next week's away game to Sevilla, I have no doubt we will win. They do have a tough Champions League fixture midweek plus have looked far from their best, especially defensively on many occasion. A win would put us even closer to maintaining a Champion's League spot as it would push the difference to 11 points. The commentary team was saying something about Marcelino telling players that winning all the home games we have remaining, which are all against very winnable sides, will put us through. I don't know if he did say that or not but we are really close with 11 games to go. It's ours to lose, especially if we win next week.
As usual, let us know what you thought about the game? How good was Kondogbia? Should Barragan have been sent off? Were our penalty shouts legitimate? Should the Betis goal have been disallowed? Who impressed? Who disappointed? All comments, thoughts and opinions are welcome.