rafa benitez

Rafa Benitez – Uniting Newcastle United

When the final whistle blew at the Stadium of Light, Newcastle United's Premier League fate was sealed. Everton were vanquished and Sunderland were safe.

Speculation immediately began about Rafa Benitez's future. The Spaniard, appointed in March, had failed in his task as a brief revival failed to stave off relegation.

The potential of his Newcastle side was apparent in the 5-1 demolition of Spurs on the final day of the season.

The early days of the summer saw names of replacements bandied around as Benitez's CV seemed to demand that the Championship was beneath him.

Behind the scenes, it quickly became apparent to the Newcastle board that unlike the club's star players, Benitez wanted to stay. The question was whether he would be given the funds to overhaul the squad.

He was as owner Mike Ashley put his business woes to one side and bankrolled a busy summer. With Lee Charnley working in tandem with Benitez, Newcastle quickly became active in the transfer market.

Efficiently too. The only protracted deal was the sale of Moussa Sissoko as the revolving door at St James Park became a hive of perpetual motion. In the background, Benitez started remodelling his squad and their style of play.

The pre-season was positive. The Magpies had a good tour of Ireland and set about building understandings as they continued their unbeaten spell. The Championship arrived and Newcastle played like strangers. Questions were asked in bars and clubs whilst the back pages of the local press wondered if this was going to be a tougher season than they thought.

Since those back-to-back defeats in the opening two games, the Toon have been the division's form team. Saturday's win over Ipswich Town opened a three-point gap at the top and it's hard to see where the next defeat is coming from.

Benitez has put together a squad which is bulldozing its way through their opposition. And as manager, he is outwitting his peers. Newcastle are a powerful attacking force with strength in depth on the flanks and in Dwight Gayle, a centre forward in the goalscoring form of his life.

Dragging that consistency out of the players hasn’t been easy but when a manager who has won the Champions League is willing to invest his career in a club, it’s inspiring for the squad. And this is his squad.

Some remnants of the Premier League campaign remain but he is moulding them, following his blueprint to success. Every setback is met calmly and methodically; the lessons learned quickly.

The second defeat of the season, at home to Huddersfield Town was followed by six consecutive wins, including a record-equalling 6 – 0 win over QPR at Loftus Road. The surprise 0 – 2 reverse against Wolves? Seven unbeaten and counting.

Benitez’s experience with Liverpool, Chelsea, Napoli, even the ill-fated return to the Bernabeu is all being used to exploit the weaknesses of the Magpies Championship opposition. It’s invaluable for the players and they have responded well.

This is a club which flirted with relegation in 2014/15; belief was slowly seeping out of the squad which with the calibre of players they had, was surprising. Benitez commands the respect of the players, able to list more honours as a player and coach than the squad can muster collectively.

But he has their ear. In a sport where the definition of loyalty is notoriously fickle, he has engendered it in his squad. Not only that, he has the fans ‘onside’ as well. It was during the summer when the realisation that he was a popular choice became apparent.

At Doncaster in a pre-season friendly, the Toon Army were in full voice. Mainly against Moussa Sissoko and the perceived disloyalty and egotism. Condemned by many for sub-standard performances which were a strong contributing factor in the club’s decline, he made it clear as soon as relegation was confirmed that playing in the Championship was beneath him.

Flirting with every club possible – Arsenal, Everton, Dortmund, Liverpool; even Real Madrid in one of those delicious moments. Sissoko bit on newspaper speculation that he was coveted by Zidane but rather than establish the truth, the French international dived headfirst into an open courtship with the Spanish giants.

It turned out to be nothing more than mischief-making from the press. They and the Toon Army could barely contain their glee at Sissoko’s egotism.

And whilst this was all going on, Benitez refused to condemn the player, publicly at least. When supporters bayed for the Frenchman’s head, that he be banished to the reserves, Benitez turned them around to his way of thinking with well-chosen words that left the door open if, as it seemed likely at one point, Sissoko remained on Tyneside.

Noticeably, Sissoko hasn’t a bad word to say about Benitez or the club, despite supporters ridiculing his statements after his deadline day move to Tottenham.

The message from Benitez was clear to all the squad. Loyalty. He would back them to the hilt in public and whatever was said behind closed doors, remained behind closed doors. He demanded the same from them and he has it. Even from players not in the starting line-up.

Benitez, the arch-pragmatist, has kept Cheick Tiote in the squad even though it seemed he was on his way to Turkey or Qatar this summer. The midfielder responded in kind and hasn’t rocked the boat.

Rafa Benitez has been Newcastle’s signing of the summer. Not because of his reputation. A club which seemed on the edge of imploding, is united and belting back to the Premier League at a rapid rate of knots.

About the Author Moha

Hardcore fun of the beautiful game. Played soccer for different clubs in my country before hanging up my boots. Now writer for My Soccer HQ

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