Swansea City's Pablo Hernandez eyes reunion on the road to Wembley
PABLO Hernandez comes up against some old friends tonight believing Swansea City can dislodge the crown of the "King of Valencia".
For Hernandez, Swansea's Capital One Cup semi-final against Chelsea means a reunion with a handful of familiar faces.
First there is Juan Mata, the brilliant playmaker who he used to room with during their days together at Valencia.
Then there is Fernando Torres, the striker who Hernandez shared a dressing room with during his stint playing for the Spanish national side.
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And then comes Rafael Benitez, the Chelsea manager who was the revered leader of Valencia when Hernandez was emerging from the club's youth ranks.
Hernandez never played for Benitez, for the coach had left Spain for Liverpool by the time he had broken through into the senior side.
But as someone who was born and raised in the region, Hernandez has not forgotten the job Benitez did before departing for Anfield.
"At Valencia, Rafa is a king," he says.
"The people of Valencia love Rafa Benitez. I never really spoke to him. When he was at Valencia, I was in the youth teams.
"But I watched him training and I know he's a good manager.
"In Valencia he won three titles with a team that was not the best in Spain."
Hernandez thinks Benitez has been harshly treated at Chelsea, where a large section of fans have expressed opposition since he was appointed to succeed Roberto Di Matteo in November.
He was booed when he took to the Stamford Bridge dugout for the first time, with some supporters singing 'We don't want you here' because of comments Benitez made about Chelsea when he was Liverpool boss.
"It's difficult because people wanted Rafa out before one match had been played," Hernandez adds.
"I think people have to wait to see the results — a coach needs more than three or four games.
"Once the players have adapted and he's played 15 or 20 games, then the people can say whether the coach should go.
"Rafa was a good coach in the Premier League with Liverpool, he won the Champions League, and the people of Chelsea just need to get used to him."
Benitez has done a decent job of silencing the critics in his early weeks in West London, with the Blues racking up plenty of wins and plenty of goals.
But the flak was flying once more last week after Benitez's team were humbled on their own patch by struggling Queens Park Rangers.
The Hoops' success should give Swansea inspiration as they attempt to give Benitez's detractors another stick to beat him with this evening.
And if Michael Laudrup's men are to trouble Chelsea, they must stifle Hernandez's mate in midfield.
"Mata is a good friend of mine," he explains.
"He was my room-mate at Valencia for two years, and we would always have lunch or dinner together.
"He is a good friend and a very good player, and I am happy I can play against him.
"I remember in the Premier League game (in November) he didn't play because of a little injury but he's a very important player for Chelsea.
"It's not easy to stop him — but I have lots of confidence in the Swansea defence.
"It's not only Mata. They have Torres, the new player (Demba) Ba. All the players for Chelsea are big players."
Hernandez, owner of four Spanish caps, played with Torres at the 2009 Confederations Cup.
"He's a top player," he adds.
"He was excellent at Liverpool and scored a lot of goals, but in football the big players have to score a lot of goals all the time.
"If Torres does not score then people are not happy, but I think he's a top player."
Torres, Chelsea's record £50 million signing, cost almost ten times as much as Hernandez, who is Swansea's record buy at £5.55 million.
Yet it was the latter who shone brighter when Swansea met Chelsea earlier in the season, Hernandez netting two minutes from time to earn Laudrup's team a well-deserved point.
"That was a nice game for me," Hernandez recalls.
"It's always special when you score against one of the big clubs."
The last month or so has not been so enjoyable, for Hernandez has been struggling with a thigh injury.
Just when he was really starting to make his mark on this Swansea team, he limped off against West Brom.
"Before that I was playing well and feeling confident," he says.
"I was very good physically and I was playing well, but the month out was a long time.
"Now I have to get my confidence back, but I think in a couple of games I will be feeling 100 per cent again."
Swansea need Hernandez to be somewhere close to his best tonight, for this is a huge moment in their season and indeed their history.
A former Copa Del Rey finalist — when he came on for Laudrup's Getafe team and Mata started for Valencia — Hernandez purrs at the prospect of reaching Wembley with Swansea.
"These four of five months since I came here have been great and the next month is very important for me and the team," the 27-year-old says.
"The two matches against Chelsea are going to be very difficult because they are the last Champions League winners, but I think Swansea can beat Chelsea.
"We've done well against Manchester (City and United), Arsenal and Liverpool, and we feel we can beat anyone in the Liberty Stadium.
"It will be tough to score in the first match against Chelsea, but I think in the second it will be possible. Then maybe we can go to Wembley, which would be unbelievable for the club."