How will Newcastle do with Benitez “coup” after change of coach?
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | March 12, 2016
In taking on Newcastle United, Rafael Benitez is embarking upon his first relegation battle since 1999 – the same year the Toon Army last travelled to Wembley for a major cup final.
Over a decade-and-a-half following his appointment at Valencia in 2001, it has instead been a feast of trophy hunts and title challenges for ‘Rafa the gaffer’.
For all those successful pursuits, starting with his La Liga title and old UEFA Cup wins with Los Che that put him on the map, Benitez has also known relative failure.
A brief history of Benitez
Twice succeeding Champions League winning coaches at Inter Milan and Real Madrid in Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, and being sacked with swiftness for failing to maintain such standards, the Spanish tactician is now back in England.
Climbing the summit of European football with first Premier League club Liverpool is his maiden campaign, Benitez spent six sweet years on Merseyside, also adding the FA Cup to his medals collection in 2006.
Rafa was briefly back and dubbed ‘the Interim One’ when agreeing to coach Chelsea to a Europa League triumph during a six-month stint in 2012/13, following the dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo.
Prior to his Real return, Benitez paved the way for Napoli to emerge as credible title challengers in Serie A for the first time since the days of Diego Maradona.
His pulling power attracted the likes of Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon, Gonzalo Higuain, Dries Mertens and Pepe Reina to Naples. Armed with such talent, Benitez captured the 2014 Coppa Italia.
Change of scene
From chasing a Neapolitan dream and being back at the Bernabeu to trying to drag the Magpies out of the relegation mire; that’s some contrast.
Coral’s football ambassador and Toon legend Alan Shearer described his old club’s latest appointment best. “It’s a great coup for Newcastle to get someone like Benitez,” he said.
We’re talking about the most high-profile Magpies manager since Sir Bobby Robson here. While Kevin Keegan enjoys similar heroic status to Shearer, none of current owner Mike Ashley’s appointments have a coaching record to match Benitez.
Occasionally the target of criticism over defensive caution, such careful planning at the back will be welcomed on Tyneside.
Newcastle are one of a quartet of sides to have conceded more than 50 Premier League goals this season, and it’s no accident the others are fellow bottom four teams.
Clean break clause best for Benitez
Much was made by the gathered media about the relegation release clause inserted into Benitez’s three-year contract at his official unveiling.
“Some people can see this as special, but it’s normal,” the new Magpies manager told reporters. “I am trying to stay in the Premier League and if I have a compromise for the future, it’s because I am convinced that we will do well. I want to stay.”
Who does it suit more? Benitez certainly. Couple that with his title being manager, not head coach as his predecessors were known, and he has clearly driven a hard bargain with Ashley.
To see a Newcastle boss in a position of strength is certainly refreshing. All coups come at a price, but the importance of getting a slice of that new bumper TV deal that starts next season hardly needs emphasising.
Turning around derby record can clear fog from Tyne
Benitez had the players in on their day off to attend a training session before taking the Toon to high-flying league leaders Leicester City. His St James’ Park dugout debut thereafter could hardly be bigger.
It has become something of a tradition in recent times for the Tyne-Wear derby to follow a quirky trend in relation to coaches.
This mega match between Northeast neighbours and bitter rivals has been the second game in charge for four successive Sunderland managers – the latest of which is Benitez’s old foe Sam Allardyce.
With a wretched record of six straight defeats against the Black Cats on derby day over the last three years, and one win in 10 meetings for the Toon, could the boot now be on the other foot? The Magpies are 21/20 with Coral for victory against their enemy.
Newcastle v Sunderland on March 20th is set to be the mother of all relegation six-pointers; a rivalry desperately intensified because of where both clubs find themselves in the table and due to the long-standing enmity between bosses Benitez and Allardyce.
How Benitez can keep the Toon up
On the other side of the Easter international break is an equally important and must-win game away at fellow strugglers Norwich City.
Should Benitez mastermind victories in both those matches, home encounters with Swansea City and Crystal Palace in April and at rock-bottom Aston Villa come May, then that would give the Magpies a total of 39 points minimum.
That is a tally which would’ve been enough to keep them up in all but one of the last eight seasons.
With five perfectly winnable games, his decision to take Newcastle on looks like a real opportunity to re-establish a reputation and endear himself to the Toon Army. Benitez is 5/4 with Coral to keep the Tyneside team up.
Perez potential remains
This appointment should certainly benefit Ayoze Perez, the sole Spaniard on the books at St James’, because compatriot coach Benitez has tended to use Iberian attackers when managing abroad.
Luis Garcia and Fernando Torres at Liverpool, the latter again with Juan Mata at Chelsea, and the aforementioned Callejon at Napoli – all Spain internationals employed by Benitez to great effect.
Canary Islands native Perez is yet to prove he is in such class, but having a coach prepared to place their faith in him and regularly hand starts will be a boost.
There is already evidence to support this hypothesis. Ayoze’s overall seasonal stats of six strikes in 25 Premier League games doesn’t sound great and is indicative of Newcastle’s struggles. However, when looking at Perez’s poaching when playing from the start, his return is a finer five in 17.
Full-blown optimism is unlikely to break out among the Toon Army until the ifs, buts and maybes listed above are addressed, but everyone connected with the club is certainly feeling better about this Benitez coup.