Rafa Benitez from Champions League to Championship
The Magpies boss began the season at the helm of one of the world's biggest clubs but ends it with an ignominious relegation to English football's second tier
For Rafa Benitez, the season began with a long-awaited homecoming. Finally, after over twenty years since he coached Castilla, the Spaniard returned to the Santiago Bernabeu, becoming head coach of Real Madrid and fulfilling a long-held ambition. Yet while Benitez began the campaign at the pinnacle of world football, he has ended it in despair. Sacked by Madrid in January, the 56-year-old has failed to save Newcastle United from relegation to the Championship.
Sunderland’s dominant Wednesday night win over Everton sealed the fate of Newcastle and Benitez. A club mismanaged from boardroom level down for a number of years, the Spaniard took over at St James' Park with just 10 games left to save their Premier League status. Mired at 19th, one point behind both Norwich City and Sunderland when Benitez took over, Newcastle continued to stutter and stall under his tenure.
The club’s form under Steve McClaren was desperate, but Benitez was unable to muster enough of a recovery to propel them out of the relegation zone. The Spaniard had to wait until his fifth game at the club to record a win, failing to provide the instant impact that bitter rivals Sunderland have become accustomed to. Managerial changes at the Stadium of Light, from Paolo Di Canio to Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce, have each acted as the catalyst for remarkable escapes from relegation. Benitez was tasked with turning similar water into equally sweet wine but Sunderland will end the season how they always end seasons, while Newcastle find themselves in the Championship.
Though presiding over the crucial conclusion to their demise, the fault for Newcastle’s relegation does not wholly lie with Benitez. The Spaniard took control of a set of players assembled by McClaren and, previously, Alan Pardew that looked promising on the surface but continually showed themselves to be inadequate when it came to the desire needed to compete in England’s top flight. The fracture, too, between the club and the fans was well established before Benitez took the job, with Newcastle’s relegation the culmination of years of mismanagement, rather than just 10 games.
Though not totally to blame for Newcastle’s woes, relegation throws Benitez’s managerial career into turmoil. Should he continue at St James' Park, the 2016-17 season would mark the first time in 16 years that the Spaniard began a season in a domestic second tier, since being appointed as head coach of Tenerife in 2000. But Benitez’s continued employment in the north east is far from certain, as the 56-year-old’s contract includes a release clause in the event of relegation. It seems that the winner of the UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup does not see his future in the Championship.
If Benitez's departure is imminent, then, another question arises: where next? Leaving Newcastle after relegation would complete a hat-trick of successive jobs that ended in disappointment. At Napoli, Benitez delivered a Coppa Italia in his opening season, before being pushed towards the exit door after failing to qualify for the Champions League in 2014-15. The perception in Naples was that the Spaniard had failed to tangibly drive the club forward, a notion highlighted by Maurizio Sarri’s work this season, turning Napoli into a breathless attacking side that look set to finish second in Serie A.
Then, at Real Madrid - a slightly fortunate appointment after Napoli - Benitez was tagged as an unexciting coach, with things sliding from bad to worse after a 4-0 Clasico defeat in November. The dream job ended in nightmare, compounded by Zinedine Zidane’s steadying influence, returning Madrid to the title race via a win at Camp Nou win and thrusting the club towards the Champions League final.
And while Napoli spent most of the season competing with Juventus at the top of Serie A and Madrid, under Zidane, made their way towards the Champions League final, Benitez toiled at the bottom of the Premier League. His ultimate relegation with Newcastle seems to mark the nadir of a career that has been on a steady decline since the end of an interim spell with Chelsea. The next job that Benitez takes will be crucial in securing his continued viability as a manager at the top end of the game, but the offers are unlikely to come from clubs of the calibre of Valencia, Liverpool and Inter, let alone Madrid.
Real Madrid CF