Benitez returns to Bernabeu as Liga leaders Madrid face Celta

Benitez returns to Bernabeu as Liga leaders Madrid face Celta

March 8, 2024 at 3:05 AM
Celta Vigo coach Rafael Benitez returns to face his former side Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu
Celta Vigo coach Rafael Benitez returns to face his former side Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP
Source: AFP

La Liga leaders Real Madrid face former coach Rafa Benitez and his struggling Celta Vigo side on Sunday as they bid to get back on track after last weekend's draw at Valencia.

Los Blancos not only dropped two points but had key player Jude Bellingham sent off and he will miss two league games, including Celta's visit to the Santiago Bernabeu.

Madrid also played badly in a 1-1 draw against RB Leipzig in the Champions League on Wednesday, but it was enough to see them through to the quarter-finals 2-1 on aggregate.

Despite the Valencia draw, Madrid's closest title challengers Girona could not capitalise and fell to a 1-0 defeat by Copa del Rey finalists Real Mallorca.

The Catalans have run out of steam in recent weeks, suffering three defeats and a draw in their last five matches.

Madrid's traditional title rivals Barcelona, third, host Real Mallorca on Friday and can overtake Girona before they play Osasuna on Saturday.

Carlo Ancelotti's side are still without long-term absentees Thibaut Courtois, David Alaba and Eder Militao, along with the suspended Bellingham.

Brahim Diaz replaced the England international in the first-leg win against Leipzig when he had an ankle injury and the playmaker scored, while Joselu has also been in good form for Los Blancos.

Ancelotti did not select either in the second leg and admitted he got his line-up wrong by loading the midfield.

"Maybe I made a mistake, I was trying to put energy in, but that was what we didn't have," said the coach.

He will likely select a far more attacking side against Benitez's Celta, fighting for their lives after a difficult start to the season. They cannot afford to roll over for the Spanish giants.

The Galicians are 17th, five points clear of the relegation zone and held their own against Barcelona in February, denied a point only by a 97th-minute Robert Lewandowski penalty.

Despite some decent performances, pressure has been mounting on Benitez with some Celta fans calling for his removal.

"There is one priority, which is Celta, and we have to be united to support Celta and the players on the pitch -- for me that is the key," said Benitez after a 1-0 win over bottom side Almeria last weekend.

"I am very happy because the team won, we showed up, all of us here are very happy."

Facing the league leaders is not the ideal fixture for a side desperate to build confidence and momentum but Benitez said his team had to continue on that path.

"We have to keep winning," added the coach.

"We have to stick with that confidence so that in the end we don't have to 'sprint' in the home stretch.

"For that, we have to take on each game thinking there are three points to be won."

This is the first time Benitez has returned to the Bernabeu since Madrid sacked him in 2016 after just seven months at the helm of Los Blancos.

The coach was replaced by Zinedine Zidane, who enjoyed unprecedented success with Madrid.

Elsewhere Athletic Bilbao visit Las Palmas aiming to keep the pressure on in the race to finish in the top four.

Player to watch: Alvaro Morata

Atletico's Alvaro Morata has scored 14 goals in 24 Liga matches
Atletico's Alvaro Morata has scored 14 goals in 24 Liga matches. Photo: Thomas COEX / AFP
Source: AFP

With Antoine Griezmann sidelined, Alvaro Morata has added responsibility for Atletico Madrid, who are aiming to end a dire run of away form at Cadiz on Saturday.

Diego Simeone's side, fourth, have won just two of their last 11 matches on the road across all competitions.

Morata has 14 goals in 24 La Liga matches and is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career.

Key stats

9 - Villarreal are struggling but midfielder Alex Baena leads La Liga for assists

15 - Barcelona coach Xavi is suspended from the touchline on Friday after earning his 15th card since arriving in November 2021

33 - Athletic Bilbao striker Inaki Williams has more shots on target in the league than any other player

Fixtures (all times GMT)


Barcelona v Mallorca (2000)


Valencia v Getafe (1300), Cadiz v Atletico Madrid (1515), Granada v Real Sociedad (1730), Girona v Osasuna (2000)


Alaves v Rayo Vallecano (1300), Las Palmas v Athletic Bilbao (1515), Real Madrid v Celta Vigo (1730), Real Betis v Villarreal (2000)


Almeria v Sevilla (2000)

AFP photo