MADRID — Gary Neville knew that coaching at a high level wasn't going to be easy. He certainly didn't expect to be struggling so badly so early.
Less than two months into his first head-coaching job, the former Manchester United great is already in danger of being fired.
Language problems, injuries, disappointing results, unhappy fans — there's a lot going wrong for Neville at Valencia.
The Spanish club hasn't won in eight league games since Neville took over the squad. It dropped to 12th in the standings and is only five points above relegation zone. The latest setback was a 1-0 home loss to Sporting Gijon, a result that prompted loud jeers from the supporters at the Mestalla Stadium.
Neville has kept the team alive in the Copa del Rey, leading it to the tournament's semifinals, but even then the luck of the draw went against Valencia, putting it against Barcelona, Spain's hottest team.
"We obviously don't seem to be getting the breaks, the good fortunes in respect of that," Neville said. "But that's not a problem either. We cannot complain. We have no excuses."
A few reasons can help explain Neville's dismal debut as a head coach, and they are not all his fault.
Valencia started the season well but it was already struggling when the former Manchester United defender replaced coach Nuno Espirito Santo. The team was coming off three winless games when Neville officially took over. Nearly a dozen players were injured at the time, including Diego Alves, Javi Fuego and Enzo Perez. Only now the squad has been getting back to full strength.
"We missed our experienced core of the team, the players who obviously provide that little bit of comfort for everybody else," the 40-year-old Neville said. "It was the same when I was a young player, I liked the idea of having the experienced players alongside me, to be able to cuddle me in. With the experienced players returning, I feel as though we are in a stronger position that we were five or six weeks ago."
It's also unfair to say that Valencia hasn't always played well under Neville. The team dominated the game against Sporting this weekend, creating most of the scoring chances, but it couldn't capitalize on them. Forward Alvaro Negredo had two great chances to score but inexplicably missed them both.
"I accept my large part of the blame, a striker is there to put the ball in the net," Negredo said. "The fans can say what they want, they pay to watch and they have the right. We have to accept our mistakes. We have to pick ourselves back up as soon as possible. We have to continue working and change this dynamic."
Publicly, the club is backing up Neville despite the disappointing results and the increased pressure from supporters unsatisfied with the coach.
"Gary arrived when we were going through a difficult situation," Valencia's sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch said Monday. "We know he can overcome this situation. We have to be patient."
There were high hopes when Neville was hired by owner Peter Lim, who is also a business partner in non-league club Salford City in England. Despite his inexperience, Neville's brilliant playing career and success as a television analyst gave Valencia fans something to be optimistic about.
From the get-go, though, it was clear that language would be one of his obstacles. Neville still isn't able to fully communicate in Spanish and certainly can't promote his ideas with the same impact as he would in English. He is relying mostly on younger brother Phil, who also played for United and joined Valencia last year as an assistant coach. Some of the coach's press conferences have been awkward, involving difficulties in the translation of his comments.
But it's the type of problem that can become a non-issue if Valencia starts winning again. Unfortunately for Neville his team faces all-mighty Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals on Wednesday.
A victory at the Camp Nou will certainly make a lot of his problems go away.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni