Ashley pushing Benitez to his limit at Newcastle

HULL, ENGLAND - JULY 24: Newcastle player Joselu (l) and manager Rafa Benitez in discussion during a pre-season friendly match between Hull City and Newcastle United at KCOM Stadium on July 24, 2018 in Hull, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
HULL, ENGLAND - JULY 24: Newcastle player Joselu (l) and manager Rafa Benitez in discussion during a pre-season friendly match between Hull City and Newcastle United at KCOM Stadium on July 24, 2018 in Hull, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images) /

Rafa Benitez has begun to resurrect a sleeping giant in the north, but will he be around long enough to complete his rebuilding project in Newcastle?

Last season, Newcastle finished a respectable 10th in the Premier League after promotion from the Championship. Despite a lack of trophies, it was one of Rafa Benitez’s most impressive seasons in a decade. After another summer of limited investment from owner Mike Ashley, the Magpies struggled to score goals, but managed to finish in mid-table thanks to a stout defense that allowed just 47 goals, the fewest of any side that didn’t qualify for Europe.

Benitez has always been an underrated manager despite his unprecedented record. No other manager in history can boast a quintet of Europa League, UEFA Cup, Champions League, Super Cup, and FIFA World Club Cup titles. He’s managed legendary clubs like Real Madrid, Liverpool and Inter Milan along the way.

The Benitez effect has been clear to see since he took over Championship-bound Newcastle in 2016, and has continued to pay dividends this summer. After the World Cup, Swiss defender Fabian Schar left Deportivo La Coruna to join Newcastle, telling the Chronicle in Newcastle Benitez was “one of the main reasons” why he elected to move to England.

At the other end of the pitch, Newcastle added another World Cup standout. Japan’s Yoshinori Muto was signed away from Mainz in France, and will provide some much-needed pace up front. For a club that ranked near the bottom of the league in goals scored with just 39 in 38 matches last year, getting better at converting scoring opportunities will be critical.

At the moment, however, Benitez enters the season as a lame-duck coach playing out the last year of his contract. Newcastle purportedly offered the manager a five-year deal this offseason, which Benitez rejected. Wanting more assurances that the club will maintain a commitment to spending on players and youth development, Benitez turned down the offer and appears completely  unwilling to sign a new deal without such a commitment from Ashley.

With the seventh-largest stadium in England and a rabid fanbase, Newcastle have the potential to blossom into a perennial contender for the European places. Instead, under Ashley’s ownership, the club have languished at the margins. Twice the Magpies have been relegated to the Championship since Ashley’s takeover of the club in 2007.

Ashley stepped in during a precarious period and restored the club to more sound financial footing. At this point, though, he has become the enemy for many Geordies. The owner, saddled with the debts incurred by the club prior to his takeover, has been unwilling to go too far with his spending.

There was a time when fans might have understood Ashley’s desire to restore the balance sheet. After over a decade of his ownership, however, and year’s worth of false promises, their patience has long since run out.

Unwilling to loosen the purse strings, Ashley risks losing the club’s most beloved manager since Bobby Robson This season will be critical in determining the course taken by the Magpies in years to come.

Benitez will be motivated to steer Newcastle to a strong performance. The £6 million buyout clause in his contract expired prior to the season, ensuring that Benitez will remain with the club through this season. But whether he’s free to walk after that will depend on whether his new agent can negotiate a deal to his liking with the club.

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A tough opening to the season awaits for Newcastle. Tottenham visit St James’ Park for the opening match of the new campaign. After a trip to Cardiff, the Magpies then face Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal in succession.

Given the composition of the squad, the addition of two new World Cup stars will have a positive impact, but compare the Magpies’ business to the clubs expected to finish around them, who have almost all spent tens of millions more this summer, and it’s easy to understand why so many fans are frustrated.

Even if the squad is good enough to survive another season, Ashley’s unwillingness to spend only increases the likelihood of Benitez letting his contract run out. And so the ultimate question for Newcastle entering this campaign is simple: Can they convince Benitez to extend his contract?

The Spanish manager is clearly fond of the club, and has turned down plenty of opportunities to walk away over the past few years, but everyone has their limit. Unfortunately for Newcastle, Ashley seems determined to find Benitez’s.