Four hours after Mike Ashley paid £90m to take control of House of Fraser, Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez yesterday signalled a truce in his own struggle to extract a comparable investment from the club’s owner.
Benitez has been strident in his criticism of Ashley’s reluctance to back the manager’s judgement during a transfer window in which Newcastle made a profit of more than £20m, but his preference now is to speak about football rather than finances.
“Yesterday was one thing, today’s another,” Benitez said. “Today I have to be purely focused on football. Why? Because it will not change anything to say you spent more or less doesn’t change anything. You have to perform and you have to win.”
When Benitez did talk about football, however, optimism about a Premier League season that starts at home to Tottenham was difficult to detect as the Spaniard and his latest signing Federico Fernandez assessed their prospects.
Argentine international Fernandez did not hesitate when Benitez, once his manager at Napoli, offered him the chance to join Newcastle, apparently without making any extravagant promises about what lies ahead. Asked if he feared another survival battle after going down with Swansea last season, Fernandez said: “Of course.
“Our first objective has to be just to stay up. And then, depending on how we start, we can think about looking forward and finishing as high in the table as possible. But at the moment, with the speculation that is around, with how much rival teams have improved, it will be tough.”
Benitez did not disagree when Fernandez’s viewpoint was relayed to him. “It’s always difficult to compete in the Premier League,” he said. “The newly promoted teams have spent a lot of money, the teams who were promoted with us have spent a lot of money, so everybody has spent money. That means it will be very difficult.
“Because we finished tenth everyone can think ‘they were great’. But the difference between 10th and 15th was only a couple of points. In football, you can talk and spend money, but you have to perform on the pitch. You never know, sometimes you spend a lot of money on a player and he is not good enough.
“We did not do everything perfect and we could have done some things in a different way, but I have a lot of confidence in this group of players because they did well and the new players have settled down fine.”
And his target for the season? “I will be realistic and say to stay up. We did really well last year with the way we were playing and working. You have to be more ambitious, but it is football and our idea is one game at a time. We did that last year and achieved tenth position and did well last year. Hopefully, we will be able to do the same.”
Fernandez will not be involved against Tottenham, but Benitez’s other summer signings will be in the squad, with the supporters’ attention mainly on new forwards Yoshinori Muto and Salomon Rondon. “The key for us being better is how good will Muto and Rondon be,” Benitez said. “They are different to what we had. We have improved a little bit or at least we have brought players who can do a job for us. Maybe we can be better, but the other teams will also be better.”
Benitez has entered the final year of his contract at Newcastle and there is no progress to report over negotiations about a new one. He said: “We have time to do things and I don’t need to explain at every press conference that we have talked. We know now is the time to relax a little bit and concentrate on the games. Then we have plenty of time to talk about that.”
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