Raúl González cannot wait to return to Spain in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 after FC Schalke 04 were paired with Valencia CF.
The 33-year-old bade farewell to Real Madrid CF in July after 18 years at the Santiago Bernabéu – during which he scored 323 goals in 741 senior appearances, both club records – for "a new challenge" at Schalke. Raúl has adapted well to his new surroundings, scoring six times in the Bundesliga and twice in Europe as the German side won Group B.
Their reward is a knockout meeting against a Valencia team Raúl knows all too well, having scored 12 goals (five at Mestalla) in 24 Liga games against them, plus one in Madrid's 3-0 UEFA Champions League final victory in May 2000. "It certainly won't be easy but, personally, I've got good memories from playing there," he said, sentiments no doubt shared by Spanish club-mates Sergio Escudero and José Manuel Jurado. "I played many games there at club level and with the national team.
"Valencia are a great team but this is going to be a very even tie. It's always a pleasure returning to Spain.
It's a really great incentive for me especially playing against such a strong rival and in a stadium that generates a great atmosphere; it's an extraordinary setting to play a Champions League game."
The first leg will take place at Mestalla on 15 February, with the tie set to be decided in Gelsenkirchen on 9 March. "It can be an advantage to play the return leg at home but first we have to put in a good performance in the first leg," said Schalke defender Benedikt Höwedes, an unused substitute when the clubs met in the 2007/08 group stage.
"Back then we were unlucky to lose 1-0 at home and we then drew 0-0 in Spain," he said. "They're tricky opponents, even though they lost two strong players in David Villa and David Silva [in the summer]."
Final word goes to the coaches, who both seemed content to be facing the other. "It's an attractive and at the same time difficult draw," said Felix Magath, with Valencia's Unai Emery adding: "They represent strong, competitive rivals. It's a tie which gives us all hope.
There is more than enough time to analyse them but my first impression is that it will be a wonderful tie."
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