Ask almost anyone in Newcastle city centre, and they’ll tell you it is true; Rafa Benitez is magic. On Thursday night, the manager of the most important football club in the world to those people, Newcastle United, was serenaded by around 200 people at a Q and A event put on by one of the biggest national newspapers; Sunday’s game at home to Manchester United was on the horizon, and they needed their hero to pull a rabbit from the hat.
Things were tight and things were tense. As Benitez and his team arrived at St James’ Park, a stadium they have not won at since October, news filtered through of Huddersfield’s 4-1 thrashing of Bournemouth, a result nobody expected. By the time the game kicked off on Tyneside, at 2:15pm, the Magpies were in the bottom three. The earlier result was not setting nerves at a high voltage, rather the idea that Newcastle needed to beat a top six side to reinvigorate their charge to avoid relegation straight back to the Championship. Huddersfield had beaten Manchester United, Stoke had beaten Arsenal, as had Swansea coming off the back of another victory over Liverpool; a draw with the Reds was the best Newcastle had mustered all season in the big games. They really needed to improve on that if they were to avoid trouble for much longer. Matt Ritchie’s first goal of the season was enough to grab a vital win, lifting them all the way up to 13th in the table.
Mourinho’s ‘Geordie jinx’ continues
Jose Mourinho brought his side to the North East in good shape; they’d won six out of seven games in all competitions, with the only goals conceded coming in the one defeat suffered, in their last away trip at Tottenham Hotspur. Well aware of his awful Premier League record on Tyneside, played six, won none, drawn three and lost three, Mourinho went on the charm offensive. Any bad blood with Benitez, dating back to their intense battles as Chelsea and Liverpool managers, was not mentioned; he insisted he loved heading to the North East, to place where Sir Bobby Robson’s, his former boss and the man he still respectively refers to as “Mr Robson”, spirit still burns brightest.
It is easy to dismiss any emotion Mourinho shows, positive or negative, as false. He is a man known to get deeply personal in arguments he will have forgotten about years later, and lavish praise an others in odd situations, all to gain an advantage. But his love for Robson, the man who gave him his first opportunity in coaching at Sporting Lisbon, then FC Porto and later Barcelona, is most certainly real. So real, in fact, that a man so notorious for his hatred of losing, can take such an awful record in as good a grace as he does, because of who the place is connected to.
Fight, heart and quality for Newcastle
As for Benitez, the man on the other side of the tunnel on Sunday, he is beginning to show the same love and affection for the club, the area and its community that came so easy to County Durham-born Robson, choosing to wave his fee for Thursday’s session, instead giving to the Newcastle West End Foodbank. The relationship between fans, who love that he just “gets” what it all means to them, and manager shows that it doesn’t take success to become popular on Tyneside, just a will to try and the know-how of keeping everyone pulling in the right direction.
Though it has been a season full of fears, concerns and negativity for various reasons, the very feelings Benitez was originally brought in to eradicate, everything went perfectly on this specific occasion. Benitez is well aware that his squad is not at the standard he wants it to be and, without ever being disrespectful to his players, he has never hidden the fact. The gulf in quality between Manchester United and Newcastle has been rather big for the majority of the last 20 years, but coming into this one, it had never been bigger. Hard work, effort, commitment and a sprinkling of quality was the only expectation; everyone went above and beyond.
Paul Pogba, recalled to the side for this game by Mourinho, and Nemanja Matic were completely outfought by Jonjo Shelvey, voted man of the match, and a resurgent Mohamed Diame. Florian Lejuene and Jamaal Lascelles were magnificent in defence and, despite riding their luck at times with chances for Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial, did a fantastic job in marshalling them and Romelu Lukaku. New loan arrival Islam Slimani was not quite fit enough to be involved, but Kenedy was lively again before getting tired, while Martin Dubravka, the new goalkeeper, had a debut to remember in every sense.
Under Benitez, the work-rate has never been questioned. Within his camp, the players all have one goal in and they will pull themselves towards it kicking and screaming if they have to. Quality, though, is another matter; too often they have failed to put games to bed by missing chances, or failed to compete against bigger sides. Benitez needed a statement and he got it at the perfect time; the most important victory of his reign to date, one that could change the outlook for the rest of the season.
Relegation is still a genuine possibility and Newcastle cannot afford to rest on their laurels. A horrible run of home games maybe over, but they must channel the performance and atmosphere again and again. With Benitez at the helm, all that is possible; he pulled the most vital win out of the hat at just the right time.