Benitez is taking a huge gamble


When Roman Abramovich invited him round to dinner after Chelsea's 2-1 win over Arsenal in January 2013, the Spaniard ended up playing indoor football with the Russian's children.

It was one of those days during that crazy period as Stamford Bridge interim manager when everyone suddenly wanted to know him. After Benitez had been chauffeured to Euston, for the journey north to his home that night, a Chelsea fan asking for photographs was one of the same bruisers who had given him dog's abuse at the same station a few weeks earlier.

Evenings chez Ashley seem even more improbable than a Kensington soiree with the Abramovichs, though Benitez is willing to accept that and to take the almighty gamble that St James' Park represents.

You might say that any new club is a breeze after Chelsea, where Benitez's advisers encouraged him to take his own security men for the infamous “flag day” when opposition to him had reached its crescendo. At Real Madrid, Benitez told president Florentino Perez that he should buy the Croatian Mateo Kovacic for €8m, only to be told the club should wait and buy him when he was worth €80m because it would make more of a splash that way. Cristiano Ronaldo could not even pronounce Kovacic's name properly - much to the midfielder's disdain - after Benitez had talked Perez round. Madness.

But Benitez had talent around him at those clubs. This time there is substantially less and the genuine threat of relegation. “Why on God's earth?” is the first, last and only question which springs to mind.

Because of an acute sense that he was too long out of the game - 23 months - when he last repaired from the continent to his Wirral base, following a midwinter dismissal, administered by Internazionale in December 2010. And because of an acute desire to manage a club with size, stature and a huge following which he can allow himself to believe, sooner or later, will enjoy European football.

Those who really know will tell him that Newcastle is such a seething mass of dysfunctionality that their European high ground of 13 years ago is simply unattainable. Yet to have told Benitez on his return from the penury of the Madrid job that Swansea City were managerless and that Southampton, another very well-run club, might be looking for someone like him this summer, would have invited the response that he could not leap from the Bernabeu to such modest surroundings.

The clubs of the stature Benitez is looking for - the Manchester teams, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool - are virtually all closed off to him. There is no certainty that Mauricio Pochettino will leave Tottenham this summer, or that Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, would look to Benitez. The Spaniard has received several approaches from China in the past six weeks and had seen Germany as a new possibility, though the shape of the job has always mattered more than security. In that sense, Newcastle is one of very few fits.

Benitez may reckon that he knows about dealing with relegation. He met it at Extremadura in the small western Spanish town of Almendralejo, where he arrived in the summer of 1997, tasked with taking the just-relegated side immediately back up to the Spanish top flight. He displayed far more circumspection about taking that job than this one, and though he did get the club immediately promoted, it did not end well. The second half of the next season - 1998-99 - was better than the first but Extramadura were plunged into a two-leg relegation play-off against Rayo Vallecano. They gave away a penalty and saw their goalkeeper sent off in the first minute of the away leg, lost and plunged back down to the second tier.

The reference to Benitez being “closer to my home and my family” in yesterday's Newcastle statement was significant. His wife, Montse, has always been committed to her full life with their two daughters on the Wirral. Not even Perez's offer to build them a home with a golf course and stables, two of her prime interests, could entice him from Liverpool to Madrid in 2009, when Manchester City were also interested. He will discover in good time that the 190-mile, three-and-a-half hour trip from West Kirby to Tyneside is a slog, but it beats the solitude of hotel life when he managed Napoli - another crazy club.

Now comes the reality of what his predecessors attest is the Godforsaken life inside Mike Ashley's Newcastle, with 10 games to protect himself from a relegation which would substantially damage his reputation as one of Europe's managerial elite. It is his biggest risk in 23 years of management.

Rafa’s recue mission:


(all Premier League)

Monday Leicester (a)

20 Mar Sunderland (h)

2 Apr Norwich (a)

9 Apr Southampton (a)

16 Apr Swansea (h)

23 Apr Liverpool (a)

30 Apr Crystal Palace (h)

7 May Aston Villa (a)

15 May Tottenham (h)

TBA Man City (h) – The Independent

Original source: Benitez is taking a huge gamble