It has been a season-long staredown between Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley and manager Rafa Benitez with regards to the gaffer’s future at the club, and the stakes continue to rise ahead of Saturday’s contest at St James’ Park versus relegation-threatened Southampton.
Benitez is out of contract at season’s end but willing to return for next season if Ashley makes a commitment to improve the club. The Newcastle manager did not cite a specific figure in terms of spending money in the summer transfer window, but he did make it clear Ashley must open the purse strings to a greater degree than he has in past windows to help avoid grinding simply to stay in the top flight during a third straight season.
“I am in contact with the club and I am waiting for answers to questions I have proposed to continue,” Benitez told the Spanish radio station Marca. “My family is in England. Here I am content – but a series of conditions have to be met. To stay, we need to sit down, talk well about the economic possibilities of the club and what direction we’re going in.”
To a degree, Benitez holds the hammer. He is beloved by Newcastle supporters, and he has maintained Newcastle’s level despite limited reinforcements in the four transfer windows he has overseen since guiding them to promotion. Additionally, any time a Champions League-winning manager is on the market, there will be no shortage of potential suitors whether in England or Europe should Ashley fail to meet Benitez’s requests.
Newcastle United (10-8-16) took a huge step towards safety in their last match, a 1-0 victory at Leicester City on April 12. Ayoze Perez’s free kick just after the half-hour separated the sides, though the win was another example of Benitez’s tactical acumen as he opted for a 3-4-1-2 formation that flooded the midfield to lessen the impact of Foxes midfielder James Maddison and limit his link-up abilities with Jamie Vardy.
Benitez compared Southampton to Crystal Palace – a side that ended Newcastle’s five-match home winning streak a fortnight ago – in terms of offensive prowess and expects the Saints to present a difficult challenge since they are closer to the drop than the Magpies.
“I said 38 points (would be enough) a long time ago,” Benitez said at his Thursday press conference. “Cardiff have won a couple of games before that, and now it’s even more important for us to win another game, be sure everything is fine and then we can start thinking about how high we can go in the table.
“Southampton are also coming into this game with a lot of confidence, so I think it will be an interesting game. I think it will be very similar to the Palace game, but hopefully the result will be different. Both teams are similar – they are very good on the counter attack, aggressive, and they have pace up front. We know we can’t make the same mistakes.”
Southampton (9-9-15) is two points behind Newcastle in 16th place, five points clear of the drop with matches to play and one in hand. The Saints have clawed their way out of the bottom three with 12 points in their last six matches (4-0-2) and took advantage of a dispirited Wolverhampton side last weekend, winning 3-1 after Wolves suffered a shocking collapse late in the FA Cup semifinals.
Nathan Redmond’s brace in the first half-hour bracketed a goal by Wolves’ Willy Boly, and Shane Long secured all three points for Southampton on 71 minutes. The Saints’ two losses in their last six matches came to Liverpool and Manchester United, and they are 5-2-1 in their last eight league contests against the non-perennials.
“You see the result on Tuesday shows that nobody gives up,” Saints coach Ralph Hasenhuttl told the club’s official website, referring to Cardiff City’s 2-0 win at Brighton and Hove Albion that tightened the race to avoid relegation. “There is no knockout for Cardiff, they are still alive. I expect them to fight very hard until the end and so we have to do the same and I guarantee we will do.
“We speak about the 40 points and therefore we need four more and the good thing is I don’t have the feeling my team is leaning back. They stay focused and although it’s a long season so far I have the feeling they are very hungry and they want to hunt and take more points and that’s a good signal for me.”
Southampton do not play anyone placed higher than 10th in the five-game run-in, but do start a three-match run in the next eight days and play three of their next four contests outside St Mary’s. Midfielder Mario Lemina could be available for all those matches, giving Hasenhuttl a huge boost to stay above the drop.
The sides played to a damp squib of a scoreless draw at St Mary’s on Oct. 27, with Southampton recording all four shots on target among the 28 taken by the sides. Newcastle is 9-3-1 in their last 13 top-flight matches at St James’ Park versus Southampton, with the lone defeat a 2-1 setback in January 2015 on a brace by Eljero Elia.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 1, Southampton 1.
(Rafa Benitez photo courtesy Newcastle United FC official Twitter account)