Old rivals are United in name only
Toon Army cling to hope but season so far has been a nightmare for them and Rafa Benitez
Newcastle United versus Manchester United used to be one of the great Premier League contests. Since Roy Keane slapped Alan Shearer 15 years ago, however, it has become a one-sided rivalry with the team in red usually victorious. And today Rafa Benitez, without a win at St James's Park in eight, knows he only has one way to stop his nemesis Jose Mourinho.
Their paths have crossed eight times in the Premier League, Mourinho has six wins to Benitez's one, with one draw. They managed the same three clubs, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, but they have never been more disparate as they meet today in Newcastle's shaky citadel. Mourinho is close to dreamland at one of the biggest clubs in the world, Benitez is living a nightmare as the saviour of one of its biggest enigmas.
Only Alex Ferguson has defeated Benitez more times than Jose Mourinho in the Premier League. Ferguson won eight games against the ex-Liverpool and Chelsea boss and Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have six each. Only Pep Guardiola, with nine, has won more matches against Mourinho in all competitions than Benítez, who has five.
And yet Mourinho has never won a Premier League match in his six visits to his mentor Bobby Robson's hallowed ground. In fact, he has managed more away league games at Newcastle without winning than at any other club in his managerial career; although he won two League Cup matches there with Chelsea. He has also won all six home games against the Toon, by an aggregate of 17-1.
"We played many times when he was at Chelsea," said Benitez, "so we know each other really well. He can change things and mix things up, but it depends on the players. I can try to do this or that, but if my players do not understand, then I cannot do it.
"If you have top-class players and you tell them: 'I want to do this, and I want to do that.' Then if they don't do what you say, they can still do something different and win the game.
"It's totally different. I have been on the other side, but it is totally different on this side. We had players like Steven Gerrard, who I would tell: 'Look, Stevie, I want you to do this.' He will then do it, or maybe he will do it even better than you are planning.
"With these teams [like Newcastle], you have to prepare every single detail, and still they can make the difference with one thing that you are not expecting. Personally, I don't have any problems with the top six teams because they are top sides and then you have to approach the game like a challenge and do the right things. As Newcastle manager I want to approach the game in the right way to get three points. Different style of football. Manchester City have a lot of possession. United are more direct."
He needed no reminding of the infamous rant directed at Ferguson. Fact. But the Spaniard was asked if he missed the mind games of the top six managers. "For you (the media), the mind games are more important. For me, it was preparation of the games. I was not worried about the mind games, I was worried about my team.
"The promise that if you say something and the other manager says something and you win the game, the assumption is that you are winning the mind games. No. Sometimes your team is better or the other is better and that is it. Even making mistakes or losing the mind games and you can win the game. It is like this.
"Any game for us is a good game for getting three points and doing the right things. You cannot change things in one minute. It could be different, it could be worse. You have to analyse why and work out what is giving you the chance to stay in these games and improve the other things.
"I was watching Manchester United against Huddersfield the other day and today they were analysing the game on TV and they said (of Huddersfield): "Organisation, pressing all good". How did it finish? 0-2. You have to do everything right. You make one mistake and you pay for it. The top sides, the difference between Championship and top league is one player making the difference."
This is not the Newcastle United of Keegan and Robson; the entertainers and triers who went so close. They have employed eight managers and been relegated twice since Sir Bobby Robson died ten years ago. The Premier League lights shine elsewhere now because Tyneside has been plunged into darkness.
And it is all owner Mike Ashley's fault. Newcastle are in a relegation battle again and Benitez is fighting with a squad he built on a corner-shop budget, relying on loan signings, Chelsea misfit Kenedy and Leicester striker Islam Slimani, a £29 million addition to the Premier League-winning squad, who scored eight goals in 15 starts and 20 substitute appearances for the Foxes. Slimani makes his debut today after arriving injured. Kenedy must sustain a promising start.
Newcastle United has a long history of board protests and revolt. Just ask Jack Charlton who walked out after a pre-season friendly and went to Ireland. But supporters' voices of dissent and disgust have never been more united following Ashley's refusal to sell to Amanda Staveley's consortium in December, and the predictably disastrous dealings in the transfer market which followed.
And throughout it all, as they have since he walked through the door two years ago, and despite being unable to save them from relegation, they will back Rafa Benitez, they will believe in him and they trust him. There is almost nothing else.
Benitez could surely have walked already but he embraced Newcastle and Newcastle United when he was hired two years ago. He offered hope on the club's return to the Premier League, after gritting his teeth through promotion, but he knows this is not the Newcastle of old. He knows he needs the fans on his side. He tries but cannot ignore the unrest.
"We have been talking about the takeover for a while and obviously the transfer window too," he said. "But the players know that it depends on them, especially after January 31. The fans know this is the group of players that we have, and they have to do their best. The people around them, it doesn't need to affect them.
"I just want the players to concentrate on the games. My message to the fans always is just: 'Stay behind the team, stay behind the players.' It is the only way. You cannot improve the performance of players who are doing things wrong by booing them. That is not my concern. The other things around, the players won't be concerned by them." Lay off the owner and back the team? "No, I will not say that. Just concentrate on the team - and that is it. I will not tell anyone to do anything."
Newcastle's run under Benitez is not helping the mood and the stats are alarming. Trust is being tested. They have won just two points against teams above them and have not won in eight at home since October, failing to score in five of those matches. Based on home results, Newcastle United would be bottom of the table.
Benitez was not giving much away in the build-up to the reunion with Mourinho. But there was an interesting exchange after he had defended his defensive reputation. The Newcastle United manager was asked if Mourinho was like-minded in his approach.
"I like to analyse only my own team," he said. "Are you friends with Jose now?"
"My concern is my team and doing all the things I need to do to win games."
"Was he nice to you recently? "I just concentrate on the games." "Man City or Man Utd? Which one would you choose to watch?" "Newcastle United under 23s." But will there be a bottle of wine opened, post-match. "I don't drink wine." Benitez said.
There may be aeons of miles between their clubs, players and paths but this is still Benitez versus Mourinho . . . Newcastle United versus Manchester United. I know a few Geordies and they live in hope . . . always.
Newcastle United v Manchester United
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