"I'm not afraid of anything in football." Mauricio Pellegrino took his seat, ran a hand across his head and picked up the bottle in front of him. The Valencia manager took a swig and waited for the first question. When eventually it came, it was to the point. Are you afraid, he was asked, of getting the sack? Valencia had just been beaten at home by Real Sociedad. It was their second league defeat in a row and they had conceded nine goals in a week: 4-0 at Málaga, 5-2 at Mestalla. They slipped into 12th and the hankies were out and the whistles too. Even the coach would admit that the situation was "horrible." But fear? "Me?" he said. "No. I'm not afraid of anything in football."
Least of all the sack. Not here, not at Valencia. His team had, after all, just got through in the Copa del Rey and the Champions League: they were the better side against Bayern Munich and this week they have the chance to finish top of their group. They lie 12th in the table, true, but the season is only 13 weeks old. There is plenty of time. And besides, it is not his fault that Valencia are €330m in debt and that that is a huge improvement on the €550m the figure stood at three years ago. It is not his fault that they have two stadiums – one that they can't sell and one that they can't build – that Bankia have decided that they are no longer going to fund the work or that the local government can no longer support them.
It is not his fault that Valencia have sold seven Spanish internationals in the last four years, Jordi Alba heading out of the club this summer just as David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata did before him. Or that they will have to sell more. It is not even his fault that there are players in the squad who don't care and who think they are better than they are. It is not his fault that Ever Banega managed to run over his own leg or that Sergio Canales has been injured. It is not his fault that Valencia finally got rid of the manager who secured third place three years in a row. Just as it was not Unai Emery's fault.
And if anyone knows all that, the president, Manolo Llorente, does. The president who this summer announced: "It makes me jealous to see Silva at City and Mata at Chelsea but the reality is what it is."
Valencia have been in this position before and realism has prevailed. Protests are nothing new and Llorente has always stood by his manager. He stood by Rafa Benítez and he stood by Héctor Cúper, he stood by Claudio Ranieri and, in different circumstances, by Emery. Even when others did not, even when the whistles were shrill and fans chanted for coaches to get the chop, he stood by them. Publicly, at least. For all the private battles – and Benítez was referring to him when he talked of shadowy figures brandishing knives – he was a picture of level-headedness, cool and calm. Pellegrino, a man who had been at the club in various capacities from player to coach at youth and senior level, had been his personal choice. And that was only 21 games ago.
Of course he wasn't going to sack him.
But this time it was different; this time it was personal. Valencia's fans have whistled many managers over the years and Llorente has remained firm. This time they weren't even on the manager's back and he didn't. This time they weren't on the coach's back, they were on his. And that was pretty much the point. Unlike with Emery, widely disliked despite always winning Spain's "other league", overcoming mounting difficulties season after season but never really convincing the fans, the supporters were mostly on Pellegrino's side. What he didn't anticipate was that that would be exactly his problem.
At a club where the season tickets are the second most expensive in the league behind Real Madrid, where Llorente takes home a salary of almost €350,000 a year, where the best players depart and there has been little tangible progress in combating the crisis, fans have grown tired. Now, for the first time, the president is in the line of fire. At about the same time that Pellegrino was talking to the media, supporters had gathered outside, protesting and chanting abuse at the directors. One threw a flare that reached the passageway to the directors' box, filling it with smoke. During the game, the chant was Llorente, vete ya! Llorente, not Pellegrino.
All those chants aimed at the manager and he didn't go; one chant aimed at the president and the axe came crashing down. When they pointed the finger at their coaches, Llorente kept cool; when they pointed the finger at him, he did not. It was time to find someone to blame. Not long after Pellegrino said goodnight and left the room on Saturday evening, Llorente appeared and sacked his first manager. On Monday afternoon, Valencia confirmed that Ernesto Valverde will be the new coach. The speed of the appointment suggests a plan. There was none. There is none. Llorente's work, hugely commendable, has been a day-to-day battle rather than a long term plan.
"This is an unfair decision and one I don't share," Pellegrino said the following morning. "It is a decision taken in the heat of the moment. It is the result of a moment's anger and fear. Above all, fear."
It was also a decision that revealed much about the atmosphere at the club, about the internal divisions, where acts of indiscipline have been multiple: the latest was Sofiane Feghouli, caught driving without a licence. On Sunday morning, Roberto Soldado left the dressing room to talk to supporters who had turned up to confront players and to cheer Pellegrino. "We are responsible for this," he admitted, hinting at what lies within. "We have not been up to the level set by the club or the manager. We were ridiculous. We have to work like a small team, showing character. I would like a squad with more Spaniards in, more people from here."
"The players have not been worthy of the coach. He is a great person and a magnificent coach," said the captain, David Albelda.
• José Mourinho called a referendum but virtually no one showed up. Not in Madrid, anyway. Instead, another man's fate was being decided in another city; 400 kilometres away, Pellegrino was the victim of a plebiscite. Not against him but against Llorente. In Madrid, there was no such drama. During last week's Copa del Rey game, when some Madrid supporters had chanted his name, others responded with whistles so on the eve of the Madrid derby, Mourinho called out the fans. If you want to whistle me, he said, I'll be there on the pitch at 9.20pm, alone. Whistle all you like. And so it was that at 9.20, he turned left out of the dressing room, headed down the tunnel and up the stairs and on to the pitch, surrounded by photographers and cameramen. And virtually no one else. The game was not kicking off until 10 and the stadium was pretty much empty. Had it been a real challenge, he would have set high noon for 9.50 instead. "Mourinho never hides and always shows his face," said his assistant, Aitor Karanka, who took the post-match press conference.
• Speaking of which … had it been a real challenge it would not have been the Madrid derby either. 21,000 fans had watched Atlético train in the morning and they came into the game with an eight-point lead over Real, thinking that this time was different. It wasn't. Madrid won 2-0 and they still have not been beaten by Atlético since 1999. Not that it was much of a game. In fact, Ronaldo aside, it was mostly awful. The kind of game in which both coaches, both teams, seemed happy for nothing to happen; both waiting for the other team to attack them so that they could counterattack but without the other team ever wanting to give them the chance to do just that. So they waited. And waited. And waited. And everyone else just got bored. The kind of game where the players were on the floor more than the ball was and you just wanted it to end. Which it did. At midnight and below freezing.
• Rubbish London bus joke. Typical, you wait months for a sacking and then two come along at once. First Mauricio Pochettino, now Mauricio Pellegrino. Which does at least make things easier. Although Manuel Pellegrini must be bricking it.
• Cesc, Mess and Piqué all scored as Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao 5-1. Messi got two (or one if the first is an own goal, which it might be), meaning he is now just two off Gerd Müller's record. It was the first time that Cesc, Messi and Piqué all scored in the same game since they were 13.
• Valencia's loss and the sacking of Pellegrino shouldn't blind us to a superb performance from Real Sociedad. Alberto de la Bella's goal was gorgeous. Think Pelé's outrageous skill … only where Pelé missed, De La Bella scored.
Results: Osasuna 1-0 Rayo, Getafe 1-0 Málaga, Valencia 2-5 Real Sociedad, Barcelona 5-1 Athletic, Real Madrid 2-0 Atlético, Granada 0-0 Espanyol, Deportivo 2-3 Betis, Celta 1-1 Levante, Mallorca 1-1 Zaragoza, Mallorca 1-1 Zaragoza. Sevilla-Valladolid, tonight.