MADRID, February 12 – Valencia coach Gary Neville has pleaded with the club’s disgruntled fans to turn up and support his struggling side when they face Espanyol at the Mestalla on Saturday.
Valencia have not won in the league since November and there are growing fears they could be dragged into a relegation battle.
Neville has failed to win in nine La Liga games since taking charge in December, form that has seen his Valencia side plummet from five points off the top four to just four points above the relegation zone.
Only an estimated 10,000 fans turned up to see Valencia’s fate sealed in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals on Wednesday with a 1-1 draw against a much-changed Barcelona coming after they were thrashed 7-0 in the first leg a week before.
“I am aware of the right of the fans not to come and to say and do what they want,” said Neville.
“I think the stadium on Saturday will be full and an electric atmosphere. We and the team need the fans more than ever on Saturday.”
Neville’s friendship with Valencia’s Singaporean owner Peter Lim played a big part in him taking his first managerial role at the Mestalla, and has helped the England coach remain in the job despite widespread criticism in the Spanish media and by some sections of the club’s support.
However, another defeat against an Espanyol side who have also not won in nine games and lost 5-0 at home to Real Sociedad on Monday is expected to see Neville’s time in Spain come to an abrupt conclusion.
Espanyol coach Constantin Galca’s job is also on the line just two months after taking charge with the club’s new Chinese owners — who have targeted Champions League football within three years — not expected to show patience with the Romanian.
“They are only three points above us and if we win we put them in trouble as well,” said Espanyol midfielder Victor Sanchez.
“Hopefully we don’t start like the other day and make the game as long as possible for them. There are no more excuses and we need to produce this week.”
– Toughest test –
At the other end of the table, Zinedine Zidane faces his toughest test since becoming Real Madrid coach as Athletic Bilbao visit the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.
Real’s title hopes hang by a thread as they are four points adrift of leaders Barcelona, who also have a game in hand.
Zidane will also get his first taste of Champions League action as a coach later in the week as Madrid travel to Roma, but Cristiano Ronaldo insists they are not ready to give up on the league to focus on Europe yet.
“The players are going to give everything on the field to try and win the title and the Champions League,” he told the club’s website.
Madrid have injury worries as their only specialised left-back Marcelo is sidelined by a dislocated shoulder, whilst Gareth Bale remains out with a calf injury.
Athletic also have key players missing as Inaki Williams and Mikel San Jose are both suspended.
Barcelona look to continue a club record 29 games unbeaten when they host Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Coach Luis Enrique left all 11 that are expected to start out of his squad for the formality of the second leg against Valencia in midweek.
Lionel Messi is fit after having treatment on a kidney stone problem earlier in the week, whilst La Liga’s top goalscorer Luis Suarez and Neymar also return.
Atletico Madrid remain Barca’s closest challengers, three points adrift of the European champions having also played a game more.
Diego Simeone can welcome back three quarters of his defence in Filipe Luis, Diego Godin and Juanfran from suspension as Atletico have the opportunity to move level at the top for a couple of hours at least when they make the short trip across the capital to face Getafe on Sunday.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Sporting Gijon v Rayo Vallecano (1930)
Real Madrid v Athletic Bilbao (1500), Villarreal v Malaga (1715), Valencia v Espanyol (1930), Deportivo la Coruna v Real Betis (2105)
Real Sociedad v Granada (1100), Sevilla v Las Palmas (1500), Eibar v Levante, Getafe v Atletico Madrid (both 1715), Barcelona v Celta Vigo (1930)