Can Rafa ignite that Toon fire ?
Newcastle United look doomed, stranded in the Premier League’s relegation places, but the appointment of former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager Rafael Benítez could give the Magpies a vital boost in their fight for survival.
Despite spending over £80 million on new players across two transfer windows, Steve McClaren could not inspire his squad and Newcastle seemed to be sleepwalking towards the Championship.
A squad light on spirit, character and quality appears extremely imbalanced and Newcastle’s defence has struggled to keep clean sheets, while the strikeforce has been similarly unreliable.
Benítez could hardly have had a harder first game as his Newcastle side faced Premier League leaders Leicester City on Monday and he needs results fast, with only 9 games left this season.
Here are five players Benítez will need to get performing well if Newcastle are to avoid the drop.
Daryl Janmaat is far from being the only Newcastle player to have under-performed this season, but the Dutch right-back has been a shadow of the footballer who initially impressed on his arrival from Feyenoord.
Janmaat was involved in an angry confrontation with Newcastle fans after the club’s recent 1-0 defeat to Stoke City, but supporters are right to be frustrated with their side this season.
The 26-year-old has the ability to be a thrusting threat from full-back but his performances have lacked the verve and sparkle of his first few months in English football.
Janmaat has only supplied three assists so far this season, compared to six last year, when he was a popular fantasy football selection for his reliability and attacking potency.
Chancel Mbemba has been Newcastle’s best defender by a distance this season, but that is an honour that is not particularly difficult to win.
The 21-year-old Democratic Republic of Congo international remains raw but has all the physical attributes – pace, power and strength – to become a top-class defender.
Unfortunately for Newcastle, Mbemba has had to play with an array of defensive partners this season, including the club’s out-of-form captain Fabricio Coloccini, while three different goalkeepers have played behind him.
That lack of stability has done little for Mbemba’s development but he should improve under a coach of the class of Benítez, even if time is against both of them if Newcastle are to preserve their Premier League status for another year.
Jonjo Shelvey was one of Newcastle’s high-profile January signings, but while his former club Swansea City have eased away from relegation danger, Newcastle and Shelvey remain in the bottom three.
Shelvey had a fine debut for his new team, involved in both goals in a 2-1 home win against West Ham United, but he has struggled to reach those levels since, despite being trusted with the captain’s armband.
A trio of assists from seven matches is a good return for a talented playmaker, but Shelvey’s concentration issues have been on show in embarrassingly heavy defeats at Everton and Chelsea. There is a suspicion that Shelvey is defensively lax and unwilling to do the hard work required both on and off the field to make it as a top level footballer.
If Benítez is to keep Newcastle up, he will need to get more from £12 million signing Shelvey in the last few weeks of the season.
Newcastle’s top goalscorer this season is Georginio Wijnaldum, who has scored nine goals, but has not found the net in his last seven appearances.
All nine of Wijnaldum’s Premier League goals have come in home matches and the Dutchman needs to start scoring on the road if Benítez’s side are to pull away from trouble.
Wijnaldum earned a perfect 10 WhoScored rating for his amazing performance against Norwich City earlier in the season, a game in which he scored four goals, but the 25-year-old has proven to be frustratingly inconsistent.
With none of Newcastle’s strikers being prolific this season, the goalscoring burden is resting firmly on Wijnaldum’s shoulders and two goals in his last 15 games is nowhere near enough.
Ayoze Pérez has struggled perhaps more than any other Newcastle player this season, with the prodigiously talented forward managing only six Premier League goals and a pair of assists.
Pérez has played in a number of different roles and perhaps the biggest question facing Benítez at Newcastle is deciding where to play his compatriot.
With his quick, tricky feet and willingness to shoot whenever he has found a pocket of space, Pérez ought to be one of the most dangerous attacking players in the league.
Instead, the 22-year-old has looked shorn of confidence and unable to fire in a Newcastle side that has often left its strikers completely without decent service.
But if anyone is going to score the goals that keep Newcastle up this season, it will be Pérez.