Words: PA Sport.
Rafa Benitez has been handed the task of dragging Newcastle back from the brink of relegation after Steve McClaren was eventually shown the door at St James’ Park.
Benitez has just three days in which to prepare his side for a desperately difficult trip to Leicester, and will then face perhaps the most important Tyne-Wear derby showdown with Sunderland for years in the first two of 10 vital games.
Here, Press Association (PA) Sport takes a look at the most pressing issues on his to do list.
The last vestige of confidence slipped away from an angst-ridden squad on Saturday as the Magpies were out-played by promoted Bournemouth on their own pitch. Even potential match-winners Georginio Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko, let alone youngster Aleksandar Mitrovic, have gone into their shells and Benitez needs to capture hearts and minds immediately if he is to stand any chance in the short-term.
McClaren shuffled his pack so many times, he had tried virtually every possible combination of personnel and formation in an ultimately vain bid to halt an alarming slump. Like his predecessor, the Spaniard’s options will be limited by both injuries and a lop-sided recruitment policy which has left him short of both defenders and goalscorers, but he needs to find the right combination and the best system in which to employ it as soon as possible.
- GOALS, GOALS, GOALS
As rare a commodity on Tyneside this season as any precious metal and the major root of the club’s problems. Midfielder Wijnaldum has contributed nine of a paltry total of 28 league goals to date with Ayoze Perez managing six and summer signing Mitrovic five, and that is simply not good enough. Papiss Cisse and Emmanuel Riviere have been hampered by injury, making the decision not to invest in a proven hitman – Newcastle tabled an unsuccessful £21million January bid for Saido Berahino – all the more costly.
McClaren had to cope with the double whammy of a blunt attack and a ramshackle defence, and he did not manage it. He had only one right-back, no fit specialist left-back and without injured summer signing Chancel Mbemba, no effective combination in the middle. Benitez has the same players with which to work, and how he will have to work if he is to patch up a rearguard which has managed just five league clean sheets all season.
- THE FANS
The Toon Army has found itself at loggerheads with successive head coaches for much of the last three seasons with owner Mike Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley maintaining, at best, low profiles. But for much of that time, they have been able to separate their anger towards the regime and their backing for the players on the pitch. However, even that bond has been stretched beyond its natural limits in recent weeks, and repairing it must be a priority if the club is to mount an escape.