The Weekend Review: Rafa to the rescue?

There is nothing quite like the atmosphere at a Tyne-Wear derby at St James’ Park. The noise is at times deafening, and whilst the Sunderland fans are tucked away in the upper tier of the Leazes End, the sea of black and white are in fine voice throughout as one of the fiercest rivalries in English football ensues. In yesterday’s encounter, a late equaliser from Aleksandar Mitrovic cancelled out Jermain Defoe’s opener to secure Newcastle their first point in six meetings with their bitter rivals. In this bottom-of-the-table clash, both teams needed three points but ultimately were left disappointed at a share of the spoils, especially with Norwich City picking up an invaluable win over West Brom on Saturday.

Notably, it was Rafa Benitez’s first home game in charge of Newcastle since being handed the reigns last week. The decision to relieve Steve McClaren of his duties and bring Rafa in to save their top-flight status was one which had many scratching their heads, but appeared timely due to Newcastle’s struggles this season. Rafa is a winner, and has been successful at success-driven clubs – Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea. His latest spells with Napoli and Real Madrid may not have borne the same fruits as before, but he is still regarded as one of the biggest managerial names in the game. Taking this into consideration, why would he join a club fighting the drop with ten games to go?  Could Rafa be the saviour at St James’ Park? Could he channel the achievements of the late great Bobby Robson, and drag this Newcastle side to safety?

On yesterday’s showing, it remains unclear. One promising thing is that compared to previous recent meetings with Sunderland, Newcastle showed some endeavor to get themselves back in the game after going behind. And while the players were do their part on the pitch, their new manager was doing his off it. Rafa’s decision to replace both booked full-backs with more creative alternatives, ultimately culminated in Newcastle finding an equaliser much to the relief of their 45,000 + fans.

In an unpredictable Premier League season where the top four has been breached by the brilliance of Leicester; and where Chelsea have struggled almightily, the decline at Newcastle has seen a side who, on paper, should be a top ten finisher, linger at the foot of the table virtually all season. Rafa’s appointment looks to be one final roll of the dice. The January acquisitions of Andros Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey would have brought renewed hope of a change in fortunes on Tyneside, but two players cannot be expected to come in and simply lift a team that have been on their knees virtually all season. Only Aston Villa have conceded more goals than Newcastle, and scored fewer. Some of their defensive performances this season have been shambolic to say the least, and despite possessing exciting players like Mitrovic, as well as the elegant Giorginio Wijnaldum, there is a distinct lack of team quality throughout their side.

Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs all await Newcastle in what is a difficult run-in. Their next fixture against Norwich may ultimately decide their fate before they even get to face any of the above. Should Alex Neil’s side claim victory, the challenge will become substantially more difficult – even for a man with Rafa’s credentials.

The Tyne-Wear Derby is a huge occasion in the English football calendar. It is now in Rafa’s hands, and indeed Sam Allardyce at Sunderland, to ensure that there are these to look forward to next season.