Friday 24 November 2017

Progress but no points for Benitez

Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez looks on prior to his first game back in charge in the Barclays Premier League. Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez looks on prior to his first game back in charge in the Barclays Premier League. Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Rafa Benítez has not taken a gamble. Keep Newcastle in the Premier League and a reported £2 million bonus drops from owner Mike Ashley's money tree. Lose that struggle and Benítez walks away, as per his contract, with his reputation undamaged.

"Too big a task," he could say. "The team was a basket case." Plenty of fresh offers would come his way. But that is not to disparage the arrangement, which was a rare smart move by Newcastle. The proof is that a relegation-threatened club succeeded in hiring a manager far above their station: a coach who was in charge of Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema until January 4, and who won 17 of his 25 games at Real Madrid before falling foul of politics.

Benitez came up the Leicester tunnel for his Premier League return with his arm round Claudio Ranieri, his Leicester counterpart, who held him just as tightly. Two old pals at different ends of the spectrum: Ranieri, plotting to make champions out of 5,000/1 outsiders, Benitez simply trying to stop Newcastle falling off the cliff for the second time under Ashley's ownership.

But a truth soon dawned on him. Big clubs fall below the relegation line for deep and complex reasons, none of them cured overnight by a change of manager. At least facing the best side in England gave Benitez the sharpest possible view of the state of Newcastle's psyche.

With no coat, and his familiar over-bearing touchline style, Benitez was straight into what might be called heavy coaching. Right away he was badgering Steven Taylor and Jamaal Lascelles to push up on Jamie Vardy around the halfway line. At the other end Ayoze Perez and Jack Colback were shooting wide. Repairing Newcastle's forward line is a requirement - but making them harder to score against was an absolute priority after 17 defeats in 21 Premier League away games.

In the build-up Benitez asked a team who have given little to "give everything," and then offered them no choice in the game itself, hassling Taylor again and again for his positioning and shoving Ayoze Perez back on to the pitch after he had stumbled into the coaching zone. Rafa's way or the highway.

But if compactness is at the heart of Benitez's tactical thinking, the rear of this Newcastle side is still too thinly spread, as Leicester's Shinji Okazaki confirmed when opening the scoring on 24 minutes with a sweet bicycle kick.

Described as a" great professional and a great person" by the man who sacked him (Florentino Perez), Benitez brings a considerable cv, certainly to a team of Newcastle's modest quality. He has managed Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid,. His trophy haul runs to one Champions League crown, a Europa League, two La Liga titles, a Uefa Cup and two FA Cups.

Eight goals in 20 games on the road however tells a story of Newcastle merely to creep through life in the highest tier. Again, though, Leicester offer hope to all. This time last year had 19 points and looked doomed. Newcastle came into this game with 24 and were only one point off safety. No wonder Benitez fancied his chances - as well as the financial rewards.

And Benitez has Alan Shearer, the club's greatest striker, on his side, along with other sensible observers. Shearer revealed: "We spoke on Friday just after he had been unveiled and I said I would love to be around in Newcastle on a day when we won a trophy.

"We had half a million on the street here when we got beaten in two cup finals. I lived in Formby, which is near Liverpool, when I played for Blackburn. I told him the people here are very similar to how they are in Liverpool. They are hard-working, passionate and just live their lives for football."

Benitez will be relentless in driving them on; brutal in his judgements and sure of his plan. There were no points won last night but that is certainly progress. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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