MANCHESTER, England (AP) — He’s won the Champions League, the Europa League, domestic league and cup titles, and coached many of the biggest teams on the continent.
Yet keeping Newcastle in the Premier League for another year might be one of the greatest achievements in Rafa Benitez’s managerial career.
If he gets the chance to see out this season, that is.
Newcastle dropped to last place on Saturday after a demoralizing 1-0 home loss to Brighton, a team which hadn’t won away in its previous 17 attempts.
The stats look bleak for Benitez’s side: No wins in nine games, only two points and five straight home losses. It’s Newcastle’s worst nine-game start to a league campaign since 1898. The team is already out of the English League Cup, beaten by second-tier club Nottingham Forest in its opening match in the competition only two weeks into the season.
The sad thing is, this has been coming. A chronic underinvestment in the squad by the club’s largely disliked owner, Mike Ashley, is starting to show.
Despite record amounts of money in the Premier League in recent years, Newcastle’s biggest transfer fee remains the 16 million pounds (a fee now equivalent to $21 million) to sign Michael Owen from Real Madrid in 2005. That transfer predates Ashley’s arrival at Newcastle in 2007.
Newcastle signed seven players for about 22.5 million pounds ($29 million) in the offseason and received around double that from outgoings. When it comes to player ins and outs, the club is in profit in Benitez’s 2 1/2 years at St. James’ Park.
Last season — when Benitez somehow guided the team to a 10th-place finish — and now this season, Newcastle is a Premier League club containing mostly second tier-standard players.
It’s why Newcastle fans refuse to get on Benitez’s back despite the team’s predicament — who else could they find to do a better job?
“Whether it’s to do with substitutions, tactics or whatever, they can’t question the manager, because he knows football better than anyone in this whole stadium,” Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles said after the Brighton game. “People might say he should have brought this or that player on, but he’s done it at the top level and won trophies, so he knows.”
But this is another world from Real Madrid or Napoli or Chelsea or Inter Milan or Liverpool or Valencia, Benitez’s most recent six clubs. This is Benitez — a world-renowned manager — in a relegation scrap. Sometimes, he must wonder if it’s worth the hassle.
The Spaniard has formed a close bond with the club’s passionate fan base, especially because he showed loyalty in staying with Newcastle after its relegation from the Premier League in 2016 and guided it to promotion the following season. But he has only nine months left on his contract and is unlikely to be in charge at the start of next season, not if Ashley is still the owner.
Ashley, meanwhile, has to decide if the players need a new voice in the dressing room, if it’s just gone a bit stale under Benitez and needs freshening up. He won’t be able to find a better manager, though, and removing Benitez would surely ramp up the protests against his regime to new highs.
Newcastle had 27 shots against Brighton. In its previous match, at Manchester United, Newcastle went ahead 2-0 after 10 minutes only to concede three goals from the 70th minute.
In a way, these are things to cling to — but also to worry Newcastle’s fans.
The next two months are pivotal for Newcastle and Benitez, who don’t take on a team which in last season’s top six until Liverpool on Dec. 26.
BEST GETTING BETTER?
Scarily for its opponents, Manchester City might be getting even better.
The Premier League champions, on the back of a 5-0 rout of Burnley on Saturday, have scored 26 goals in nine games — six more than any other team. They have conceded only three, tied with Liverpool for the fewest, and have only allowed 16 shots on target.
At this rate, they are on course to score more and concede fewer than last season, when they won the league in record-breaking fashion.
City has an extra attacking option this season in Riyad Mahrez, who scored a long-range goal against Burnley, and a stronger defense now that left back Benjamin Mendy is healthy and center back Aymeric Laporte has settled after his move from Athletic Bilbao for 65 million euros ($80.8 million) in January.
Good luck everyone else.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80