MADRID, January 1 – Real Madrid coach Rafael Benitez returns to Valencia, where he won two league titles with Los Che, fighting to hold onto his job on Sunday.
Madrid’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 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 favour, Benitez insists his side are improving and can challenge for La Liga and the Champions League in 2016.
“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 is playing better every game.”
It is the first time that Benitez 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.
That success seems a distant memory with Valencia in desperate need of the points themselves with Gary Neville yet to taste victory after his first three games in charge in La Liga.
A 1-0 defeat to Villarreal on Thursday left Neville’s 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.
However, they have only lost three of their last nine meetings with Madrid and haven’t been beaten at home in La Liga since November 2014.
The visitors are expected to be at full strength as captain Sergio Ramos trained 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 on Saturday.
– Catalan derby –
Barca rounded off a five-trophy haul in 2015 with a 4-0 win over Real Betis in midweek to also set a new record tally for Spanish football of 180 goals in a calendar year.
Their quest to repeat that feat in 2016 comes in the first of three Barcelona derbies in 10 days away to Espanyol on Saturday — the teams will also meet over two legs in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey.
“2015 has been the best year for all of us. To end the year in this way feels great, but we are aware that in three days we begin a new year with a special game,” captain Andres Iniesta told Barca TV.
Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba are all expected to return after being rested against Betis as Barca look to extend a seven-game winning run against their local rivals.
Atletico’s late show with two goals in the final two minutes at Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday ensured they stayed level with Barca at the top of the table, albeit having played a game more.
Angel Correa scored and Thomas Partey and Jackson Martinez provided assists off the bench in Vallecas and all three could be rewarded with starts when the league’s bottom side Levante visit the Vicente Calderon.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Espanyol v Barcelona (1500), Atletico Madrid v Levante (1930), Malaga v Celta Vigo (2105)
Rayo Vallecano v Real Sociedad (1100), Real Betis v Eibar, Granada v Sevilla (1500), Deportivo la Coruna v Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao v Las Palmas (1715), Valencia v Real Madrid (1930)
Sporting Gijon v Getafe (1930)