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Big Sam 'surprised' by Rafa's Toon call


Rafael Benitez Photo: Reuters

Rafael Benitez Photo: Reuters

Rafael Benitez Photo: Reuters

Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce has admitted he was surprised when old foe Rafael Benitez accepted the challenge of trying to drag derby rivals Newcastle out of the relegation mire.

The two men, who have enjoyed an at times less than cordial relationship in the past, will go head to head at St James' Park tomorrow with their respective clubs yet again in severe danger of slipping out of the Premier League and knowing the value of the three points at stake.

It will be just Benitez's second game in charge of the Magpies following a 1-0 defeat at leaders Leicester on Monday evening which left him with just nine fixtures remaining in which to pull off a rescue mission.

Newcastle staged something of a coup to land the Spaniard, who started the season in charge at Real Madrid, as Steve McClaren's replacement and his appointment was not something Allardyce expected.

Asked if he was surprised, he replied: "I have to say I was quite surprised, yes, but obviously being a football man, he wanted to get back in and he sees Newcastle as a good opportunity.

"I have nothing against any foreign manager coming in and pitting their wits against us in the Premier League because it's the biggest brand and the biggest league in the world.

"But from Steve's point of view, I felt sorry for him and of course another English manager bites the dust. There are only three of us left now - there's only me, Alan Pardew and Eddie Howe left now, so that's a great shame. But pitting your wits against some of the best coaches in Europe is always a challenge and Rafa is one of those."

Allardyce and Benitez have had their spats in the past, but Allardyce insists it's all in the past: "Early days, it was a bit ferocious, but the mellowing of Sam Allardyce has happened over the last few years. But it's not about me or Rafa, Sunday, apart from us doing our jobs."