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Can Rafael Benitez save Newcastle?

Published 11/03/2016

Rafael Benitez is the new man in charge at Newcastle
Rafael Benitez is the new man in charge at Newcastle

It is not difficult to see why Newcastle identified Rafael Benitez as the man they want to save their season.

A one-time European force trading on long-gone glories; prone to the kinds of occasional calamities which have rendered a once-proud reputation dangerously close to a laughing stock.

And that's just Benitez.

A match-up made not so much in football heaven, but in the mutual purgatory of respective recent exploits.

The Magpies can point to four league titles and six FA Cups; to a phenomenal fan-base, to superstar players, and to a tradition of swashbuckling flair.

Benitez's name will forever be linked with Liverpool's extraordinary comeback from three goals down to defeat AC Milan in Istanbul and win the 2005 Champions League.

But recent fortunes have not been anything like so kind. For spittle-flecked rants at journalists which have become almost commonplace in the north-east, see Benitez combusting before our eyes in his memorable "facts" jibe at Sir Alex Ferguson in 2009.

For the long and lurid farce at St James' Park, see the unrest which greeted Benitez's interim arrival at Chelsea in 2012, and the boos which bounced him out of Real Madrid - even on the day his side were sticking 10 past Rayo Vallecano.

Benitez left the Bernabeu exactly one month after his side were kicked out of the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player - to which he was alerted by gleeful fans of home side Cadiz.

Given the extent of their current plight, one might forgive Newcastle fans for wishing half their current squad could fall foul of eligibility criteria and spark the mother of all Tyneside spring-cleans.

Surely never in the storied history of the club has it quite come to this: an increasingly desperate relegation battle, despite splashing out almost £80million on new players in the past two transfer windows.

An extraordinary and deepening sense of disconnect between those at the top level of the club and the hordes of fans who made and continue to make the club great.

Benitez is walking right into the middle of the mother of all football nightmares: a situation which would make his famously frosty start at Stamford Bridge seem a carnival by comparison.

The fans may welcome his arrival - desperate times call for desperate measures - but can Benitez really find the key to turn a bunch of over-priced, under-performing players into a cohesive unit capable of launching a late battle to avoid the drop?

His early career CV suggests a glimmer of possibility. He led relatively unfashionable Valencia to two Primera Division titles and a UEFA Cup triumph, and with Liverpool won an FA Cup and had a second, unsuccessful trip to the Champions League final.

But a subsequent spell at Inter Milan lasted just six months after a fall-out with president Massimo Moratti following a public call for new investment, and his time at Real was up just as soon as he had a reported fall-out with Cristiano Ronaldo.

Awkwardly combative, no respecter of egos and prone to make public statements about the need for new investment: at Mike Ashley's fast-ailing Newcastle, what can possibly go wrong?

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