Benitez caught in underworld as Newcastle face relegation
Aston Villa 0 Newcastle Utd 0
A year ago, Rafael Benitez was one of the most desirable coaching properties in Europe.
He was about to lead Napoli into a Europa League semi-final. Liverpool fans were begging him to come back to Anfield. West Ham were hours away from luring him to east London.
But Benitez had his heart set on the very biggest job of all: Real Madrid, where he had begun his career. "I am coming home," he said at his unveiling, fighting back tears.
From the world's most successful club to the brink of the Championship in less than 12 months. And so, as Villa Park rapidly emptied, as he offered a cursory wave to the Newcastle fans, as he chewed over a limp draw that all but condemned him to his first relegation in 17 years, one question stood out. How had it come to this?
Where has it all gone wrong for one of the greatest minds in modern management?
Benitez has been relegated before, with the tiny Spanish club Extremadura in 1999, but this would be the nadir of a career that has known stunning success.
The task of salvaging the wreckage left by Steve McClaren was difficult, but achievable. And while Newcastle can still be saved, they cannot save themselves. They will need Sunderland to slip up, not just against Everton on Wednesday but in their final game against Watford.
Perhaps it was a good thing that Benitez was busy speaking to us on Saturday evening. Even a brief glimpse of Roberto Martinez's defensive cabaret at Leicester would have been sufficient to extinguish all hope. Yet hope is what fuels him.
Benitez is a man who steadfastly refuses to look beyond the next game, the next opponent, the next sheaf of scouting reports.
Yet when he finally has a chance to reflect on the last few months, what will he conclude?
Has his obsession with new challenges, his unswerving devotion to the Premier League, finally led him up a dead end? Can he really stomach the prospect of Championship football next season?
Newcastle's mess is not of his making and it's difficult to imagine him visiting the likes of Burton Albion next season.
© Daily Telegraph, London.