A game of contrasts and indeed contradictions lies in store tomorrow at Mestalla. Valencia fans are set to pay tribute to the current Madrid coach, something that is out of sync with the traditional rivalry between both clubs. But this coach is called Rafa Benítez and he is a legend for the Valencia faithful.
Benítez returns to Mestalla for the first time in 11 years and the first time he will sit in the opposition dug-out. Circumstances have changed since he won two La Liga trophies with Valencia and the now current Real Madrid coach makes the trip to his former club with the ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over him. He could enter the Mestalla door a hero and leave closing the Bernabeu door behind him. This second case in this hypothetical scenario will have much to do on the result of the 90 minutes in tomorrow night’s match. The first case however is guaranteed.
“Rafa Benítez is a living legend for Valencia fans and he will be welcomed as one” claimed former club president, Jaume Ortí.
The active supporter section of Mestalla, the Curva Nord have prepared a tifo which will be displayed pre-game bearing a picture of Benitez with the words, “Eternally Grateful” (Siempre Agradecidos) adorning the tifo. Images of the two La Liga titles (2002 / 2004) along with the 2004 Uefa Cup win will also accompany the banner which made him the most successful coach in the history of the club in their 96 years of history.
For a brief momento Mestalla, tomorrow will provide an emotional respite for Rafa Benitez in what are difficult times for the Madrid coach. The banner and sentiment of the tifo will also serve as a message for new Valencia coach, Gary Neville who is still searching for his first La Liga win. The club are on a negative roll and have gone six La Liga games without securing máximum points, their worst run since 2009.
Neville, who has signed a deal through to the end of the season has yet to convince the Mestalla faithful but the coach form Manchester has also been plagued with injuries to his squad. He insists that the Valencia squad are in a development phase but as the season reached its midpoint he (and boss Peter Lim) will, be acutely aware that the Champions League placings are becoming farther and farther away from the reaches of the club.