Miles Starforth: Will Rafa Benitez’s ‘love’ for Newcastle keep him on Tyneside?

Rafa Benitez
Rafa Benitez

It was a deserved point in the end. And a point which few saw coming at the break.

But was it a good point?

One, two or three months ago, it would have been a very, very good point. No question.

Newcastle United came from behind – they by two goals at the half-time break – at Anfield to draw 2-2.

But now? Newcastle need wins. And only wins.

Rafa Benitez feels that his team needs three of them to have any hope of staying up.

And anything less than three points from Saturday’s home game against Crystal Palace would surely spell the end for the club, which is second-bottom of the Premier League and a point adrift of safety.

There’s no safety net. No margin for error.

If only United’s players had shown the same spirit and the same resolve a few short months ago.

If only they hadn’t capitulated on their previous visit to Merseyside, having been beaten 3-0 by Everton at Goodison Park in February.

If only they hadn’t thrown in the towel a few months earlier at Selhurst Park, where Palace won 5-1.

There are too many if onlys, too many dropped points.

And with three games left to play, Newcastle’s destiny is out of their hands.

Sunderland, up to 17th after their goalless draw against Arsenal, are masters of their own destiny, while Norwich City have the comfort of a game in hand.

Things, however, can quickly change.

So against that background, Alan Pardew makes his first return to St James’s Park since leaving the club midway season.

It’ll be an uncomfortable afternoon for Pardew, but he has a thick skin.

But will his FA Cup finalists have an equally uncomfortable time on the pitch?

United need to start well, which is something they haven’t done all too often this season.

And Benitez himself admitted after the Liverpool game that the team can’t afford any more “mistakes”.

There have bene plenty of those on and off the pitch in recent seasons.

Pardew’s heydey at St James’s Park – the run to fifth place in 2011-12 and the Europa League campaign the following season – seems a long, long time ago.

Success this season will be survival.

The club’s recruitment policy was one of Pardew’s frustrations at the club.

He left in December 2014 and pointedly talking in public of the need for another striker.

John Carver stepped up after Pardew’s departure and the club stayed up on the final day of the season.

Carver was replaced by Steve McClaren, who lasted a little over nine months in the job.

In Benitez, fans believe the club has finally found a manager capable of bringing success to United over the coming years, but time is not on his or the club’s side.

Newcastle have made tangible progress under Benitez.

Statistics show that United are better under Benitez at both ends of the pitch.

There have been more goals scored and fewer conceded.

The players are running further, sprinting faster and tackling harder.

And the club would be 14th in the Premier League if it had started when Benitez took the job on.

McClaren talked a lot about “progress” during his time on Tyneside, but we never got to know what he REALLY thought.

We didn’t get to know the McClaren beneath the smiling veneer, if the truth be told.

McClaren, unquestionably a competent coach, attempted to coax and cajole his players with praise, but they didn’t respond.

Benitez has had more joy with his players. He talks, they listen.

In his first impromptu training session last month, the 56-year-old set about walking every player through what he expected of them in various situations.

Even now, he can be seen on the touchline talking his players through games.

There are still some familiar failings – Liverpool’s two goals underlined the need for more defensive work – but the team is more compact and more cohesive.

Crucially, they are playing for each other.

And the captaincy has brought the best out of Moussa Sissoko, who is finally starting to threaten in the opposition half of the pitch.

Behind the scenes, players and staff have taken to Benitez, who has a break clause in his contract allowing him to leave in the event of relegation.

The Spaniard is a busy man, but he always has time to talk about football. His enthusiasm is infectious.

Long after the final whistle at Anfield, there were still Newcastle fans in the away end singing his name.

They lingered, also mindful that they would not be back to the rebuilt Anfield next season.

There’s still a hope on Tyneside that Benitez – who last week said he “loved” his new club – will stay in the event of relegation.

Supporters feel the club could have got deeper under his skin by the time the last ball is kicked.

It’s a romantic notion, but not entirely fanciful.

Never say never, but Benitez wants to be in the Champions League, and NOT the Championship.

It’s taken a long time for the club to bring in a manager capable of capturing the imagination on Tyneside.

But his tenure could yet be all too short-lived.

And fans are already bracing themselves for the departure of Benitez, a seemingly inevitable consequence of relegation.

It was a good point at Anfield, but United still moved even closer to the point of no return.