Pressure continues to mount on under-fire Newcastle boss Steve Bruce after their dire 2-0 Premier League defeat to Aston Villa at Villa Park on Saturday night – and the 60-year-old faces even greater scrutiny over the next few weeks thanks to his predecessor Rafael Benitez.
On the eve of Newcastle’s trip to Villa, Bruce, having clearly heard enough of comparisons to the man he replaced, said: “Rafa, who I have obviously heard a lot of and have the hugest respect for, like all you have, where did he finish? He was a world-class manager.
“Where did he finish? Is that success? We matched the mighty Rafa last year. We will try to do the best we can again this year. We are in the bottom half of the Premier League and have been there for the best part of 15 years.”
Less than 24 hours after those comments came out, Benitez left his post as manager of Chinese Super League outfit Dalian Professional by mutual consent, cutting short his lucrative £12million-a-year contract.
Benitez wrote on his website: “Unfortunately, like so many things in the last year, Covid-19 has changed our lives and our projects. From today, both my coaching staff and I will sadly no longer be coaching the Dalian Professional FC.
“It has been an incredible experience and for this I would like to thank all my staff, coaches, medical and club staff as well as our players; their commitment to us in the first place, their support during the time we were there, and their effort has been magnificent.
“The pandemic is still here, for all of us, and supporting our families has been a priority when making this decision.”
Benitez, also 60, only left Newcastle in the summer of 2019 because he could not agree a new contract and is set to return to live in England after leaving China.
He is said to be keen to get back into management as quickly as possible and Roma and Napoli are among those keeping a close eye on him, but it has been reported the Spaniard wants to work in the Premier League again or at a European club with significant ambition.
Might a return to Newcastle be on the cards? At the Magpies’ current rate, who knows? The team would surely improve under Benitez.
Bruce has long been compared to the former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager, who spent three-and-a-half seasons at St James’ Park, particularly amid the club’s current struggles.
Despite having the kind of financial backing that Benitez rarely got from owner Mike Ashley, Bruce’s men have now gone 10 games across all competitions without a win, losing eight of those matches.
The mood among fans is dour and Bruce is perhaps fortunate they are not inside stadiums at present – social media shows they do not like what they see, and understandably so.
Their team’s recent winless run includes Carabao Cup and FA Cup exits, the former against Brentford, where the Magpies had a great opportunity to get into a first cup semi-final since 2004-05 for as good as the Championship side are. Worst was how badly Newcastle performed against the Bees.
In the Premier League they are spiralling down towards the relegation zone and while West Brom and Sheffield United face a real battle to climb to safety, Fulham have improved markedly, meaning a return to the Championship is not impossible.
And the performances mean there is little to be hopeful about at the moment. Newcastle’s football is insipid at both ends of the pitch and they have been way too easily beaten recently, as they were at Villa in yet another meek display.
There were already an abundance of calls for Ashley to get rid of Bruce before Benitez became a free agent – now they will only increase.
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Reports indicate that the owner of the north east club has no plans to do so unless Newcastle get dragged into the bottom three and there is a real threat of relegation. The Sports Direct tycoon is focused instead on trying to sell the club, as he has been for some time.
But the longer Newcastle’s struggles continue, the team currently neither performing well in attack or in defence and lacking any real identity, the larger the shadow of Benitez will loom.
While Benitez would surely be reluctant to work under Ashley again but his affection for the club and its supporters was clear during his time in charge. That would mean it would be an appealing prospect to make a return, especially given Ashley hopes to give up ownership in the near future.
The 56-year-old billionaire is battling the Premier League in court over the failed takeover by a Middle Eastern consortium last year and is desperate for the £300million deal to get the green light.
If Bruce is sacked any time soon, as he may well be considering Newcastle’s continuing dismal form, it would be scandalous if Ashley were not to at least make an inquisitive phone call to Benitez, provided he is still without a job by then.
For now, Bruce will be desperate to oversee an upturn in fortunes at his boyhood club but their recent pattern of results and performances prove he has a massive task on his hands. It is one that may already be beyond him, and more fans than not want him gone.
Bruce is already sick of comparisons to Benitez but now the Champions League-winning coach is back on the market and Newcastle continue to struggle, he should expect to hear Rafa’s name even more. Whether the highly-regarded coach would make a return to the Toon, however, is another question entirely.