Benitez backs Everton to keep Newcastle escape hopes alive
A year ago, Rafael Benítez 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 Benítez 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 goalless 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?
Benítez 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.
Benítez, a Liverpool legend, is now relying on Everton – a team he once derided as a “small club” – for a huge favour.
Perhaps it was a good thing that Benítez was busy speaking to the press on Saturday evening. Even the briefest glimpse of Everton’s defensive cabaret at Leicester would have been sufficient to extinguish all hope. Yet hope is what fuels Benítez still.
“Everton are doing well away,” he said. “So, we have to wait, believe that they can get that result, and after we have to be ready.”
What of Benítez’s chequered relationship with the club? “Not rele- vant. Everton is a team that have very good professionals and they will try to win.”
Benítez 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?
Yes, Benítez has problems. But not half as big as Newcastle’s. Benítez will probably leave for pastures new this summer; the mess he leaves behind, on the other hand, will take years to fix. A dysfunctional boardroom, poor recruitment
and players only tangentially committed to the club have all put them where they are today. Owner Mike Ashley shows no sign of releasing his meaty grip. Trips to Burton Albion and Bristol City await.
Yes, Newcastle have problems, but not half as big as Aston Villa’s. Newcastle have stable finances, a large and committed support, the core of a squad that should wipe the floor with the opposition in next season’s Championship.
Villa have none of these things. Attendances have been in decline for years. The ones that still turn up only do so, you suspect, to register their displeasure. The owner, Randy Lerner, gave up the pretence of being interested years ago and would probably sell the club to the Acme Corporation right now if it meant he could take a break.
Unloved, unsuccessful, riven from top to bottom: why on earth would anyone want to buy Aston Villa right now? “Because it’s a phenomenal club with a phenomenal history,” said caretaker manager Eric Black.
“Phenomenal support, phenomenal infrastructure, and a club that should be in the top six or seven in the country. So, there’s a fabulous opportunity here.”
For all of them – Villa, Newcastle, Benítez – the future is filled with danger and doubt.
Yet, perhaps there is a curious optimism there, too; if only because whatever the future holds, it could scarcely be worse than the present. And for all the gloom and anger at Villa Park on Saturday, you get the feeling that all of them, one day, will rise again.