Benitez returns to the hot seat

Real Madrid's Rafael Benitez (above) returned early from a festive break in England only to find his future still a hot topic in Madrid.
Real Madrid's Rafael Benitez (above) returned early from a festive break in England only to find his future still a hot topic in Madrid. PHOTO: REUTERS
Gary Neville is still seeking his first win for Valencia after two draws and a defeat in La Liga. He took over as head coach last month.
Gary Neville is still seeking his first win for Valencia after two draws and a defeat in La Liga. He took over as head coach last month.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Under-fire Rafa faces former club Valencia, while Neville is still seeking his first victory

MADRID • Rafael Benitez flew back to Spain from England on Thursday, earlier than had been originally planned, but at least he flew back at all.

After a few days at home on the Wirral - at his "bunker" where spending Christmas became "going to ground", the Spaniard caught an EasyJet to Barajas.

There, the Real Madrid manager was pursued out of Terminal 1 by a reporter who rattled off questions, culminating with "Are you happy Rafa, yes or no?", and passers-by shouted helpful advice, like: leave.

"Happy holidays," he repeated as he kept on walking, the smile lasting until he was safely inside the taxi.

The president of the Spanish La Liga, Javier Tebas, had urged everyone to live Christmas "the way it was lived in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago", although Benitez could have been forgiven for living it in fear of the sack.

TWIN OBJECTIVES

I am desperately looking to pick up points but I am also looking for a good performance.

GARY NEVILLE, Valencia head coach

He had been assured that his job was not in danger, but the reports kept assuring him that it was.

Indeed, when he returns tomorrow to Valencia, where he won two league titles with Los Che, he will be fighting to hold on to his job.

Real's awful 2015 began with defeat at the 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.

And his successor could also be set for the chop after just six months in charge should the Spanish giants 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 favour, Benitez insists his side are improving and can challenge for the Spanish Primera Liga and European Champions League titles this year.

"What I want (in 2016) 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 are playing better every game."

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

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

A 1-0 defeat by Villarreal on Thursday left his men 11 points off their target of a top-four finish, having failed to win any of their last eight games in La Liga or the Champions League.

The former England and Manchester United defender, who was brought in to put the club back on track after a slow start to the season, conceded on Thursday that Valencia will find it tough to qualify for next season's Champions League following their loss at Villarreal.

Two draws and a defeat have left them 10th in the table after 17 matches, 11 points adrift of Villarreal who occupy fourth spot, the position that earns qualification for the preliminary round of the Champions League.

"It is a large distance to make up and I am concentrating on the next game (against Real)," Neville said.

"The defeat makes it a lot more difficult but there are still points to be played for.

"I am desperately looking to pick up points but I am also looking for a good performance.

"In the second half (against Villarreal) we played the best football since I arrived.

"This makes me feel better and if we continue that way, then it is possible to pick up the points that we need."

He will also be bouyed by the fact that Valencia have lost only three of their last nine meetings with Real and have not been beaten at home in La Liga since November 2014.

Real could also 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.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE-FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2016, with the headline 'Benitez returns to the hot seat'. Print Edition | Subscribe