No other game carries the same emotional weight to Rafa Benitez as those played at Anfield, perhaps now his spiritual home in football. But as he returns to Merseyside this weekend, the former Liverpool manager will know the hosts won’t be taking their foot of the medal just for his sake.
In what feels like a bad dream for Newcastle supporters, one that was in fact just four years ago, Joe Kinnear was the club’s director of football. Newcastle had been made aware of an exciting, young Egyptian winger playing for Basel called Mohamed Salah and had watched the forward. He was 21 then, a rising star with the potential for his value to increase, which was a key part of Newcastle’s recruitment strategy at the time.
Kinnear, however, was not up to speed on the deal, and was overheard telling people he was going to push through a £25m transfer for Salah, days after the player had already signed for Chelsea for less than half that.
Now Benitez must plot a path to stop Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mane. He has yet to lose against Liverpool as a returning manager, that time with Chelsea and twice since with a Newcastle side that has on each occasion been either in or readying itself for a relegation battle. It proves he can do it.
History suggests his task at half past five on Saturday evening will be gargantuan. When Robert Lee scored what he hoped would be the last goal at the terraced Kop (it wasn’t) and Andy Cole raced through to crash in a second in a 2-0 win, it was 1994, John Major was prime minister, R Kelly was 27 and at No 1 with Bump ’n Grind and Liverpool’s last championship was just four years earlier. That was also the last time Newcastle won a league game at Anfield.
No-one will forget the heartbreaking 4-3 defeat they suffered there in 1996. Remarkably they lost by the same scoreline 12 months later, but the Anfield Road has sure been a long road since those dramatic nights. Newcastle United have played 21 times at Anfield in league games since, and they have lost 17 and drawn four.
It perhaps explains why the flight home from Bournemouth last Saturday was the most disconsolate of the season. At half-time, Newcastle were leading 2-0 and had moved up to tenth place in the Premier League table. After conceding two late goals and with confidence shaken, those players were readying themselves for a potentially joyless trip to Liverpool, just two points above the relegation zone.
Benitez was pictured in his shorts at Newcastle’s training ground on Wednesday, with the temperature dropping well below zero. Such things impress the locals. The wind was so great, however, that training this week has been confined to the indoor barn at the club’s Benton headquarters, a facility that has a steady temperature of around minus two.
Newcastle do not expect much of the ball on Saturday, and that does not worry a pragmatic manager, as has been shown twice against Manchester City already this season. Then Newcastle waited and absorbed. At Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge this season, games which are not nearly referenced as much, they came flying out of the traps and surprised their hosts by taking the lead. In those four games, from which Newcastle did not gain a point, there was minimal damage done to the campaign as a whole. That is important. Newcastle is an emotional club and reacts badly to heavy defeats.
It cannot be understated how important a period in the club’s history the final 10 games of this campaign represent. Another relegation will surely end Benitez’s time at the club and the likelihood of the £67m wage bill being carried in the Championship by Mike Ashley, as it was last season, highly unlikely.
There were ten games remaining in 2016 when Benitez began his unlikely love affair with Tyneside’s football club. He could not keep Newcastle up then, but he turned results around. Replicating the 13 points he helped yield from a previously losing team in that ten game run would be enough this time to keep Newcastle in the Premier League. There is confidence enough amongst Benitez and his staff that they will do it, although the choice of the name of the hotel the club will stay in on Friday night, the Titanic, could probably have been better.
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