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Benitez Begins Newcastle Rescue Bid

Rafael Benitez’s mission to haul Newcastle United out of the Premier League relegation zone begins in unfavourable circumstances on Monday as his new side visit leaders Leicester City.

Appointed manager on a three-year contract on Friday following Steve McClaren’s dismissal, Benitez has just 10 games to steer the big-spending northeast giants to safety.

Benitez has made his name as a trophy-winner with some of Europe’s most glamorous clubs, but he believes that his experience will prove equally valid in a relegation dogfight.

“I was at Real Madrid as an academy coach, then the second division, first division, and I have experience of promotion and relegation,” he told his introductory press conference on Saturday.

“At the end it’s more or less the same. It’s about how you approach the games and analyse things. You have to be sure everybody is giving everything.

“The responsibility is the same as trying to win a trophy. You don’t want to make a mistake to lose a trophy, you don’t want to make a mistake to be relegated. It’s the same.

“I know we have a very good group of players and quality in the squad. We can give them confidence and from them I expect 100 percent every game.

“The fans will be behind us and will help. We need everything now.” A trip to the King Power Stadium carried little danger during Benitez’s last season in English football in 2012-13, when he steered Chelsea to Europa League glory as interim manager.

At the time Leicester were an upwardly mobile Championship outfit, but three years on they remain on course for arguably the most spectacular title success in the history of the English top flight.

Leicester’s lead will be trimmed to two points if Tottenham Hotspur win at bottom club Aston Villa on Sunday, but manager Claudio Ranieri continues to draw encouragement from the season’s chaotic nature.

MAHREZ FIT

“The league this year is crazy,” said the Italian, whose side won 1-0 at Watford on their last outing. “You know my ideas. I still have these ideas. Every decade or 20 years, something strange could happen.

“For this reason, we are fighting because it’s a crazy league and anything could happen. We have to fight and at the end we can say, ‘We have achieved this.’

“I said there were five games (before this month’s international break) and then I can say what we can do. Now I am focused on Newcastle. The three points are very important for us.”

Ranieri, 64, has much in common with 55-year-old Spaniard Benitez, as both men count Napoli, Valencia, Chelsea and Inter Milan among their former clubs.

But the Leicester manager has expressed regret over the dismissal of McClaren, who oversaw only six league wins during his nine-month St James’ Park tenure.

“It’s our job, it’s our life,” Ranieri said. “Sometimes it could happen. I appreciated him. It’s sad.”
Influential winger Riyad Mahrez has been passed fit for Leicester, having been forced off with cramp in his hamstring after netting the winner at Watford.

Central midfielder Matty James has returned to training after a serious knee injury that has kept him out for the entire season to date, but he is unlikely to feature in the squad.

Benitez was quick to make his presence felt at Newcastle, cancelling a planned day off for his players and bringing them in for a hastily convened afternoon training session on Friday.

The former Liverpool manager will be without left-back Paul Dummett, who aggravated a hamstring problem during the 3-1 home defeat by Bournemouth that spelt the end of McClaren’s Tyneside tenure.

Captain Fabricio Coloccini is a doubt with a calf injury, while goalkeeper Tim Krul, defenders Chancel Mbemba, Massadio Haidara and Kevin Mbabu and winger Gabriel Obertan remain sidelined.

But England winger Andros Townsend, a January signing from Tottenham, hopes to overcome the hamstring problem that has caused him to miss the last two games.
© AFP

Tongai Mwenje

Tongai Mwenje is a Senior Editor with Zimbabwe's largest online sports magazine Sportbrief www.sportbrief.co.zw. He has been writing professionally since 2012 and currently writes for technology and sport blogs. He has vast experience in digital marketing, sports reporting and analysis. He is also a Sports and Technology columnist with Financial Gazette Online Sports Column and Technology Magazine respectively.

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