Luis Fernandez has the chance to raise spirits at Real Betis Balompié by clipping the wings of high-flying Sevilla FC in Thursday's Copa del Rey quarter-final.
Betis, who visit their city rivals in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals tonight, have turned to a coach with a big reputation to salvage their campaign. Luis Fernandez, 47, a Spanish-born UEFA European Championship-winning French international, spent his playing days over the border, as well as coaching Paris-Saint-Germain FC to UEFA Cup Winners' Cup success.
Fernandez has also managed in the land of his birth, helping Athletic Club Bilbao into the UEFA Champions League in the late 1990s and saving RCD Espanyol from relegation in 2003/04. Having worked wonders at those clubs, he will hope to make a similar impact at Betis - who escaped the drop by just three points last term - having been appointed on 28 December to replace Javier Irureta. "At both clubs I created a 'group' and the players always responded," he told uefa.com.
The Betis supporters gave Fernández an ecstatic welcome, especially as they defeated RC Celta de Vigo 1-0 in his first match, and although a week later they lost 5-1 at CA Osasuna to underline the size of the task, an encouraging 1-1 draw with FC Barcelona followed. "The fans know how to respond at difficult times and when things are bad, that's when they give their all. The players appreciate that and respond accordingly." For Fernandez, the players were not downhearted by their league position, "but they knew their situation was complicated". "They were aware that things had to change if they were to improve and start getting results," he continued.
"The team have to play as a unit to pull through, putting in even more effort and commitment," the coach went on to explain. "We have to make life difficult for our opponents. Betis are in a situation where they need to put their work clothes on and play more aggressively and as a unit, which will make life easier for us."
The man who hired Fernandez - 62-year-old club owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, after whom Betis's stadium is named - is no longer the president, having stepped down in June in response to boos from the crowd. Fernandez, for one, appreciates his employer. "Ninety-five per cent of the supporters love him, respect him and appreciate Lopera," Fernandez insisted. "He's a Betis icon, the one who represents them. He carries Betis in his heart and doesn't want the supporters to go through tough times." But does Sevilla's strong bid for silverware increase the pressure on Betis? "They're on a good run and things are working out for them. Every team has its merits but I like to focus on ours."
That aim may be complicated by the host of players occupying the Betis treatment room. Ahead of tonight's first-leg tie, Fernandez is without Daniel Lembo (knee ligaments), Damiá Abella (hip), David Odonkor (knee ligaments), Edu (groin), Arturo Arzu (calf), Nano (calf). In contrast, Sevilla coach Juande Ramos is missing only Aitor Ocio (knee and ankle). Any kind of result for the green-and-white half of Seville, though, will raise expectations going into the deciding match on 28 February.