Sat, Jan 02, 2016 - Page 19 News List

Rafael Benitez in spotlight on return to Estadio Mestalla

AFP, MADRID

Real Madrid coach Rafael Benitez is to return to Valencia tomorrow, where he won two league titles with los Che, fighting to hold on to his job.

Madrid’s awful year last year began with defeat at the Estadio Mestalla, which ended a 22-game winning run and led to the eventual sacking of Carlo Ancelotti after he failed to deliver a major trophy.

His successor could also be set for the chop after just six months in charge should Real suffer a fourth league defeat in eight games.

Yet, despite another unconvincing display in seeing off Real Sociedad 3-1 on Wednesday, thanks in part to two debatable penalty decisions in their favor, Benitez insists his side are improving and can challenge for La Liga and the Champions League this year.

“What I want [this year] is for the team to keep winning games and the fans to enjoy victories, good football and a title,” he said.

“The review of the year will be made at the end of the season. We continue in good form because the team reacted well and is playing better every game,” he added.

It is the first time that Benitez will return to the Estadio Mestalla as an opposition coach after leading a golden age for Valencia, with titles in 2002 and 2004 before joining Liverpool.

That success seems a distant memory with Valencia in desperate need of the points themselves. Gary Neville is yet to taste victory after his first three games in charge in La Liga.

However, they have only lost three of their past nine meetings with Madrid and have not been beaten at home in La Liga since November 2014.

The visitors are expected to be at full strength, with captain Sergio Ramos training on Thursday after missing the win over Real Sociedad.

Madrid could find themselves five points adrift of the leaders by the time they kick off at the Mestalla, with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in action today.

Barca rounded off a five-trophy haul last year with a 4-0 win over Real Betis midweek to also set a new record tally for Spanish soccer of 180 goals in a calendar year. Their quest to repeat that feat this year comes in the first of three Barcelona derbies in 10 days away to RCD Espanyol today.

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