Benitez survival plans offer ray of hope for Newcastle
Rafael Benítez’s supporters on Merseyside will contend all night long that his time as Liverpool manager began to unravel when he could not plan his next move because he did not know who to trust.
They acknowledge his achievements before that, when issues around the club’s ownership were not such a distraction, were a consequence of his planning and the attention he gave to opponents, figuring out what they would do.
Newcastle have three games left to save themselves and are just one point behind Sunderland and Norwich City, in 17th and 18th place respectively, though both have a game in hand.
Newcastle face Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur, teams with contrasting motivations. Next weekend, Alan Pardew returns to St James’ Park for the first time since he left the club with a Palace side whose league form in 2016 has been awful.
No club as big as Villa have gone down in such pathetic fashion.
You would back Newcastle to win those two, and that might mean it all comes down to a title-relegation decider with Tottenham on the final day.
Benítez’s only victory so far, and Newcastle’s best performances, have been against clubs with little, or nothing, to play for. He believes it does not matter whether Newcastle face a team at the top or the bottom of the league from here in. His aim is to achieve maximum points.
“We approach to win,” he said, explaining why Newcastle have improved since the initial matches under his tenure in March. “It was more difficult for me the first few games because we didn’t have time to train and prepare. We had so many injuries, especially positions at the back: left-back and the keeper. It was really important to give consistency and belief to the team.
“If you are attacking and scoring goals, you can say, OK, it doesn’t matter if we concede, but we were not scoring goals. Normally, if you want to improve the team, it’s easier to start with the defence but, at the back, we did not have the players, we did not have time.
“We had to play against teams at the bottom as well. If you lose against Man City maybe it’s OK but if you draw against Sunderland and lose to Norwich it’s a big problem because you see the table. You have to forget the table and concentrate on the next. We have to try to win the next three games.”
Benítez is relishing the challenge because, when he is backed into a corner, like he was at Anfield on Saturday, he has a track record of finding solutions.
Thanks to Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana, Newcastle were two goals behind at the break and the only passion on their part was coming from the technical area where Benítez’s fitness coach, Paco de Miguel, decided it was a wise idea to take on Jürgen Klopp’s hulking assistant Peter Krawietz. Benítez intervened but before the conversation could go any further it was half-time and Benítez was off down the tunnel.
He had already decided to replace Ayoze Pérez with Georginio Wijnaldum by the moment he entered the dressing room. From there, he tried to remind Newcastle’s players of how good they could be and 20 minutes into the second half, goals from Papiss Cissé and Jack Colback had clawed back a draw from an improbable position.
Benítez, though, seems to be aware that he still needs to inject confidence. “The credit has to go to the players for reacting,” he said. “We needed to show character and belief – we did it late but we did it and that is the positive thing.
“The players have to realise where we are, what we have to do and how we have to play if we want
to stay up. I have said so many times since I have been here they have trained well, worked hard and they need confidence.
“When the game is 1-0 down maybe away they don’t have the confidence but they showed character, reaction and passion.”
On their chances of defying the odds by beating the drop, Benítez added: “It depends on other teams still but if we can play at this level, fight with this spirit, I think we can do it.
“But we need to get three points against Crystal Palace.”
Job well done: Rafael Benítez reacts after the final whistle at Anfield