Ben­itez backs Ever­ton to keep New­cas­tle escape hopes alive

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - PREMIERE LEAGUE - By Jonathan Liew at Villa Park

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.

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