Newcastle have had a wretched season by any standards.
The stats make grim reading.
They are currently entrenched in the relegation zone; sitting in 19th place with a paltry 24 points from 28 games. Only Villa have scored fewer goals. The Magpies have only won seven points on the road, and have only registered 10 points against bottom-half teams so far this season.
And it could still get a whole lot worse. Winning their two games in hand could see them rise up to 17th, but one of these games is a trip to league leaders Leicester on Monday.
This is an unacceptable plight for one of England’s biggest clubs, and unsurprisingly, the club parted ways with Steve McClaren on Saturday.
The powers that be decided that Rafael Benitez is the man to haul the Magpies back from the brink of relegation, and it was a shrewd move. The conditions of the appointment are interesting. There is a relegation release caluse for Benitez, but if he keeps Newcastle up, he could build a solid, competitive side at St James’ Park.
Jamie Carragher certainly thinks so;
“I think for Newcastle, it’s a fantastic appointment to get a manager of that calibre…These next 10 games – if he can get through those, then over the next three years he could be the man that stops that rot of trophies.”
His first task, however, will be to keep Newcastle in the Premier League. Surprisingly, one of Rafa’s sides has been relegated before. He was at the helm at Extremadura in 1999, when the Spanish side were relegated from La Liga.
Rafa has since become a La Liga, Europa League, FA Cup and Champions League winner, and was perhaps harshly dismissed at Real Madrid earlier this season.
The 55 year old Spaniard has bags of Premier League experience, having managed Liverpool and more recently Chelsea. He knows what it takes to succeed in England, and he has the foundations to build on at Newcastle.
When he was appointed at Anfield in 2004, Rafa inherited a historic club, passionate fans, and was given money to spend. He will have the same opportunities at St James’ Park.
The table doesn’t lie, but Newcastle shouldn’t be anywhere near the relegation zone. They were the league’s third biggest spenders this season, and have a better squad than most of the other Premier League strugglers, so Benitez has talent to work with.
Rafa’s teams are always solid at the back, and his most pressing challenge will be to solidify Newcastle’s porous defence.
“Rafa was probably the best I had with setting up a back four” – Jamie Carragher
Goals are another issue, and Benitez will need to get more out of Mitrovic, Perez, Riviere and Doumbia.
Midfield is less problematic. Benitez has inherited Moussa Sissoko, Jonjo Shelvey, George Wijnaldum, Cheik Tiote and Jack Colback. With a few additions and a clever manager, Newcastle could make real progress, as Leicester, Southampton and West Ham have.
Rafa also has an impressive record of winning trophies, and could be the man to deliver a League Cup or FA Cup that the fans so desperately crave.
The next 10 games could be the biggest in Newcastle’s recent history.
Rafa’s priority is to guide Newcastle to safety, and a trip to the King Power Stadium on Monday would be a great place to start.
by David Smith