Rafael Benitez: Does Newcastle Utd manager have St James' Park future?

Guillem Balague's BBC Sport column

Guillem Balague will be writing a regular column throughout the season and also appearing every Thursday on BBC Radio 5 live's Football Daily podcast, when the focus will be on European football.

You can download the latest Football Daily podcast here.

After consecutive wins and seven points out of a possible nine, people are finally beginning to believe Rafael Benitez's claims that his Newcastle United side are not going to be relegated.

But even if he does manage to keep them up, will it be enough to ensure he remains at St James' Park?

If he does maintain the momentum and ensures Premier League status, it will be an achievement to rival any of the managerial successes crafted over a long and illustrious career.

Can Benitez's vision be realised at Newcastle?

A victim of his own success by finishing 10th in the Premier League the season after winning promotion, you wonder if it would not have been better, having steered the family saloon to a mid-place finish in football's equivalent of a grand prix, to leave while he was ahead.

Had they beaten a virtually already relegated West Brom at home in their penultimate game of last season they would have finished in an almost unimaginable eighth place. It was a stressful season, and in the summer lots of doubts surfaced about how much the club was going to back the Spaniard's ambitious vision.

The spurious and scurrilous assertions that he only took - and remains in - the job for the money are as outrageous as they are inaccurate. The fact is Benitez was lured to Newcastle with the same dreams and aspirations as just about every single Newcastle fan. He, like they, wanted to wake the "sleeping giant".

Fans show their support for Benitez with a banner before the game against Leicester
Hundreds of Newcastle fans gathered for an organised protest outside the club shop before the game against Leicester in September

For "sleeping", read comatose. Rip van Winkle, who slept for a mere 20 years, is practically an insomniac by comparison. Apart from the Championship and the kind of farce that was the Intertoto Cup, the last piece of silverware to sit in the club's trophy room was the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup from way back in 1969.

He did not come to the club with a plan to merely avoid relegation. He wanted to win, to compete.

And yet in the footballing-mad metropolis that is Tyneside, expectations are high. Unnaturally so, really, with the perception that a top-10 finish ought to be the bare minimum for a club with the facilities and fanbase that they enjoy.

If Benitez had merely been there for the money, he could name his price and leave for China tomorrow. But for the Spanish manager that would mean failure, quitting, and one thing Benitez is not, and never has been, is a quitter.

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Ongoing money issues - can Benitez and Ashley find common ground?

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Have Newcastle's 'Ashley Generation' had enough?

It is about money, of course, but not for Benitez himself.

He needs it for the club, and not just on new players but also for much-needed investment in the academy, the lifeblood of the club that in the long term can help to raise it from its slumbers.

Backing on both fronts is conspicuous by its absence and much will depend on whether or not money is spent in the winter transfer window.

If it is not forthcoming then, despite Benitez's claim that Newcastle will survive, there is a very good chance that they will be relegated and that he will be sacked - or even move on.

It would then fall to the owner, Mike Ashley, to explain to the fans just why he had dispensed with the services of a manager who maximised the potential of a side despite having to watch on helplessly as the 'family silver' was sold off around him and replaced, largely, with borrowed or cut-price cutlery.

Relegation to the Championship at the end of 2015-16 led to a flurry of transfer activity and between July and August the club cashed in on quality players, with Moussa Sissoko (Tottenham), Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool), Andros Townsend (Crystal Palace), Daryl Janmaat (Watford), Remy Cabella (Marseille) and Papiss Cisse (Shandong Luneng) all leaving.

Cheick Tiote, who died in June 2017, and Fabricio Coloccini were given away presumably to reduce the wage bill.

About £87m worth of talent was sold, with about £57m re-invested on players including Dwight Gayle (Crystal Palace), Matt Ritchie (Bournemouth), Matz Sels (Gent), Grant Hanley (Blackburn Rovers), Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa) and Daryl Murphy (Ipswich). Those were quality players for the target that season - to be promoted.

Newcastle's Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates with Moussa Sissoko in 2015
Moussa Sissoko (left) was sold to Tottenham for £30m while Georginio Wijnaldum (right) joined Liverpool in a £25m deal

Despite the loss of quality, Newcastle won the Championship and won promotion alongside Brighton and Huddersfield.

Benitez's reward for gaining promotion and Newcastle's idea of preparing for a life in the Premier League was to have a net spend of about a third of what Huddersfield and Brighton spent in summer 2017. In fact, the net spend of about £20m still put them well in credit on transfer dealing during Rafa's rule and streets behind the vast majority of Premier League clubs.

Ashley's claim that he would "spend every penny generated" on improving the club has - to date - translated into a 2018-19 season in which he has made another net profit on the transfer market of about £7.5m.

What happens in the winter window will define the direction Benitez's relationship with Newcastle takes. The impression local observers have is that he would probably not extend his contract unless they spend and Newcastle say they will not spend unless the manager commits to the club.

It is not a western-style stand-off between Ashley and Benitez, though. It is a matter of vision and the possibility of a project - fundamentally nobody is asking the businessman to change how he runs his business, but also not to alter agreed parameters.

Witnesses at St James' Park have seen the owner enjoying his recent visits to the ground, sharing time with the manager and players. It might be a good time to find common ground.

From Valencia to Real Madrid - Benitez has been here before

Rafael Benitez pictured at the news conference where he resigned from Valencia in 2004
When Benitez left Valencia in 2004, the Spaniard said the events of the season had "undermined his morale" at the club

Ashley's promises to Benitez on spending to strengthen the side will feel all too familiar - and hollow - to the 58-year-old, who more often than not gets the targets agreed at the start of projects but has to suffer the moving of the goal posts by owners and presidents.

In 2004, and having won two La Liga titles in three seasons with Valencia, he left the club after the board signed winger Fabian Canobbio rather than Samuel Eto'o, the player he had asked for.

"I was hoping for a sofa and they've brought me a lamp," he remarked.

But that was nothing compared to the debacle that awaited him at Liverpool, where the American duo Tom Hicks and George Gillett contrived to steer the club into a perilous position, with administration a possibility before they sold it in 2010.

There were more broken promises about rebuilding and so on at Inter Milan, where he signed and improved players like Philippe Coutinho - one of his great enjoyments - but where he did not get the players he chose and who were agreed with the ownership (Javier Mascherano and Dirk Kuyt).

There followed the universal and unwarranted loathing by almost everyone at Chelsea, despite bringing home the Europa League, before becoming yet another victim of the player power that permeates the Real Madrid dressing room when he took charge at the Bernabeu.

In such company, Newcastle and Ashley must have initially felt to Benitez like a philanthropic breath of fresh air.

Perhaps he should have known better.

A new contract on the table - but will he sign it?

Salomon Rondon and Rafael Benitez
Salomon Rondon scored twice in Newcastle's 2-1 win over Bournemouth before the international break

A look at Benitez's statistics reveals an interesting story.

Despite having recorded Newcastle's worst 10-game start to a season since the 19th century, back-to-back wins means they are up to 14th in the table. For the time being at least, they can look upwards.

Tottenham are the only side from the top six to have beaten Benitez's Newcastle by more than two goals (August 2017) and in his past eight Premier League games against the top six he has either won (twice) or lost by a single goal.

All of which means one thing: Newcastle are close but clearly not close enough.

Benitez's contract comes to an end next summer. As it stands he has a renewal offer on the table, but to be signed the club have to show enough commitment with a project that should be around improving facilities and results, not just survival.

Should Salomon Rondon - on a year's loan from West Brom - continue to score for his new club then he may will dig them out of a hole, guarantee survival and once again Ashley will believe his approach has been vindicated. With Gayle having gone in the opposite direction to the Baggies, the two clubs should be able to sit down and work out a deal to suit all parties.

But it will probably take considerably more than that to ensure Benitez will be committing his future to the city that has adopted him as one of their own - and that is a real shame.

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