Rafael Benitez at Newcastle: Can he save the Magpies?

Mike Ashley, Newcastle fans, protest banner and Rafa Benitez
Rafael Benitez has averaged 20 points in his first 10 games at his previous six clubs, a tally that would almost certainly keep Newcastle in the Premier League if repeated this season

From Ronaldo and Real Madrid to Rotherham and Reading in six months.

That is the prospect facing new Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez, who began this season at the Bernabeu plotting La Liga and Champions League success, but who could find himself managing in the Championship in August if his attempt to steer the second-bottom Magpies to Premier League safety fails.

The 55-year-old Spaniard counts two La Liga titles with Valencia, a Champions League success with Liverpool and a Europa League win with Chelsea among his many achievements, but he will have faced few challenges greater than the one awaiting him at St James' Park.

So what are the issues he must urgently address? How will he approach the task? And, most importantly of all, will he keep Newcastle in the Premier League?

What is Benitez's biggest challenge?

Jeff Brown - news & sports presenter, BBC Look North

There have only been two things wrong with Newcastle this season - their attack and their defence.

Neighbours and relegation rivals Sunderland may have an escape route in Jermain Defoe, but the Magpies lack the 'get out of jail' card which a top-class striker can be.

A proven goalscorer can rescue the most desperate of situations - and Newcastle have been in several of those this season.

The club believes Aleksandar Mitrovic has the potential, which is why they paid £13m for him last summer, but their forward options lack Premier League experience.

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So Benitez has to find goals from somewhere, and he must also shore up a creaky defence in which Fabricio Coloccini has looked anything but the type of captain who can lead his men out of the mire.

The fans - disillusioned as they are - will take no persuading, as long as the Spaniard can coax the team to follow the lead of newcomer Jonjo Shelvey and show a bit of fight. It's been missing in recent weeks… and months.

For the past few seasons, Sunderland have pulled off an escape act by changing managers in the home straight - and then taking points off Newcastle. The Tyne-Wear derby at St James' Park, a week on Sunday, will be crucial.

Will Benitez have control of transfers?

Jeff Brown

It is interesting to see Benitez has been given the title of "manager", which suggests the working model of recent years has been scrapped. No more head coaches - just one man in sole charge, which also hints that the job of chief scout Graham Carr may be under threat.

Carr's star has waned in recent years, with too many cheap French and Spanish imports, and too few Yohan Cabayes.

And for once, it's hard for fans to point the finger at owner Mike Ashley's unwillingness to splash the cash. More than £80m has been spent on turning a side which finished fifth-bottom of the Premier League last season into one which is currently on course for the Championship.

That appears to have focused Ashley's mind on the job in hand. The thought of losing a slice of that multi-million pound TV deal must be giving him sleepless nights, so it's easy to imagine him offering Benitez whatever it takes in return for the hope of Premier League survival.

Unlike McClaren, there's no mention of the new boss being given a seat on the board - a move which, even at the time of McClaren's appointment, seemed a bizarre decision. Was he involved in talks to sack himself? Did he suggest Rafa as his replacement?

McClaren said after his dismissal he thought he could have saved the club if he'd stayed. He won't find too many fans nodding in agreement.

What is Benitez's style and what can Newcastle expect?

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Rafael Benitez: New Newcastle manager's career facts

Andy West - Spanish football writer

Benitez is widely perceived as a cautious, defensive-minded coach who is obsessed with tactics and systems, but his last couple of jobs do not really support that theory.

His final season in Italy ended with Napoli conceding 54 league goals - more than any other team in the top half of Serie A - and saw them miss out on a Champions League place by losing the last game of the season 4-2 against Lazio.

And in his most important game with Real Madrid, at home to Barcelona in November, Benitez fielded a remarkably attacking line-up which backfired disastrously as Barca romped to a one-sided 4-0 victory.

Indeed, throughout Benitez's brief Bernabeu reign he appeared caught in two minds, stuck between his defensive instincts and a desire to prove he could also oversee the attacking football which is traditionally expected from Real Madrid.

In the end, his team often did neither and his spell rarely suggested he was approaching the job with a clear footballing philosophy - although he has since claimed that the interference of president Florentino Perez hindered him from doing so.

Behind the scenes, Benitez keeps his distance from his players, seeking professional relationships rather than personal ones and leaving much of the day-to-day training activities to his coaching staff. But he does occasionally hammer home detailed tactical concepts, something which grated with his players at Real.

Why did he leave Real Madrid?

Andy West

Benitez was probably a dead man walking from the moment he stepped through the door at the Bernabeu, as very few people were happy with Perez's decision to axe his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti.

Even when his new team started the season well, the unrest which greeted Benitez's reign never truly dissipated and the first major criticism came in early October, when he was accused of adopting negative tactics in Real's 1-1 derby draw at Atletico Madrid.

But that was nothing compared to the flak he received following the woeful Clasico performance against Barcelona, and from that moment his departure was simply a matter of time.

Rafa Benitez at Real Madrid
Benitez's style meant he was never warmly welcomed by Real Madrid's high-profile players

It hardly helped Benitez's case that he struggled to earn the trust of senior players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, who regarded him as aloof and dictatorial, sarcastically nicknaming him 'The Number 10' in reference to his modest playing career.

Repeated reports of frayed internal relationships were effectively confirmed when Real's players failed to offer their public support or thanks when Benitez was sacked in January - in stark contrast to their effusive and affectionate social media messages to Ancelotti when he departed.

The former Liverpool coach's often antagonistic approach to media relations also undermined his position and, with a trigger-happy president itching for an excuse to appoint club legend Zinedine Zidane, the only surprise was that Benitez lasted as long as he did.

Will Benitez keep Newcastle up?

Phil McNulty - BBC Sport chief football writer

In Benitez, Newcastle are now in the hands of one of football's arch-strategists and tactical plotters.

The Spaniard has set his sights on a return to the Premier League ever since he was sacked by Real Madrid and will have been analysing all clubs and angles in readiness for his return.

This is why it is unlikely he will be a stranger to Newcastle's problems and, with only 10 league games to go this season, will have gone straight to work in solving them on Friday.

Rafa's record - first 10 games at new club
WonDrawnLostPoints
Real Madrid 73024
Napoli81125
Chelsea 53218
Inter Milan54119
Liverpool52317
Valencia 46018

He will be working on the defensive organisation that is his trademark and finding a way to make Newcastle more potent.

Benitez's personal animosity with Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce will also add extra spice to the Tyne-Wear battle for Premier League survival.

And while Benitez's managerial experiences throughout his career have been at the top end of the league, he will have already familiarised himself with Newcastle's future opponents and what is needed to get the results required to stay up.

Benitez has the experience and Premier League knowledge to keep Newcastle up - and no-one should bet against him doing so.

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