Valencia test for Real's Benitez
BARCELONA, Spain (AP):
Rafa BenÌtez held on to his job last year but faces another tough test of his coaching credentials tomorrow when Real Madrid visit Valencia for their first Spanish league game of 2016.
BenÌtez has been the focus of criticism from disgruntled fans for Madrid's unpredictable campaign, which has included a lopsided loss to fierce rivals Barcelona and their embarrassing disqualification from the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player.
Madrid travel to Mestalla Stadium after two easy victories at their own Santiago BernabÈu home that failed to win over their most sceptical supporters, some of whom jeered BenÌtez.
Madrid defender Pepe has called for calm.
"We have to let our coach continue to improve," Pepe said. "If a new manager came, we'd have to adapt to new systems and that isn't good. We should save the evaluations for the end of the season."
Madrid have struggled on the road this season, dropping points on four of eight of their outings. Their last away game ended in a 1-0 loss at Villarreal.
Madrid are in third place, two points behind Barcelona and AtlÈtico Madrid. Defending champions Barcelona have played one less game than their rivals.
BenÌtez's counterpart tomorrow is also in need of a victory.
Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville's coaching debut has got off to an uninspiring start.
Valencia have only beaten a third-division side in the Copa del Rey since he took over. Otherwise, the team has recorded a pair of draws and two losses, including a poor showing in a 1-0 league defeat at regional rivals Villarreal on Thursday. That loss left Valencia 10th and 11 points from the Champions League spots.
"The team is united and we are trying to get a win as soon as possible," said Valencia striker ·lvaro Negredo. "January will be a key month."
Barcelona make the short trip across the Catalan capital to play the first of three derbies against Espanyol today.
The two clubs will also meet in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey over the next two weeks.
Barcelona will be heavily favoured to continue their record form of 2015, when Luis Enrique's team won five titles and set a new record 180 for goals scored.
The strike trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Su·rez combined for 137 of those goals. Su·rez is leading the league this campaign with 15, followed by Neymar and Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo with 14 each.
Espanyol's defence is the fourth-worst in the competition with 28 goals conceded. Only the three teams in the relegation zone have conceded more.