Two years ago today, Newcastle United was a club in limbo.
Steve McClaren’s position was untenable following a 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth.
McClaren should have gone weeks earlier after his team was beaten 5-1 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
As it was, the club was considering its options.
McClaren was sacked on March 11, 2016 – and Rafa Benitez was swiftly appointed.
Before his appointment was confirmed, there was some disbelief that Benitez – who had left Real Madrid a few months earlier – would take the job.
After all, why would one of Europe’s most respected coaches take charge of a club battling relegation?
Yet Benitez, attracted by the club’s potential, arrived on Tyneside on a Friday afternoon – and was in the dugout at the King Power Stadium for a game against league leaders Leicester City on the Monday night.
Two years later, Benitez is still in the dugout at Newcastle.
Back then, United were 19th in the Premier League with 24 points. There were 10 games left to play.
Today, the club is 16th with 29 points, and there are nine Premier League matches left and 27 points left to play for.
In Benitez’s view, 40 points will guarantee safety.
Newcastle are in a better position than in the 2015-16 season, but it’s still precarious nonetheless.
And there isn’t much margin for error.
United have averaged a point a game so far this season, and another nine points might not be enough to keep the club in the top flight.
The first of the remaining games is against Southampton at St James’s Park tomorrow.
Newcastle, unlike under McClaren, aren’t a soft touch. They are organised and disciplined, and the players, ably led by Jamaal Lascelles, are committed and together.
But Benitez lacks quality in key areas.
The Premier League, flush with TV money, left United behind last season while the club was in the Championship, and Newcastle, hamstrung by a lack of transfer funds, haven’t fully caught up.
Thanks to Benitez – and a tight-knit dressing room – Newcastle have been competitive.
The Southampton fixture is followed by a home game against Huddersfield Town.
The two fixtures – along with West Bromwich Albion’s visit to St James’s Park next month – are the most winnable games the club has left. And that’s the thing, United need wins.
Clubs, notably Brighton and Hove Albion, are winning matches and pulling clear of the bottom three. They could soon be approaching the 40-point mark themselves.
Newcastle simply can’t afford to lose them.
United need to start well and end well against a Southampton side managed by Mauricio Pellegrino, who played under Benitez at Valencia and Liverpool and also served on his coaching staff at Anfield.
Benitez and his players appeared relaxed in training yesterday.
Midfielder Jonjo Shelvey – who suffered a knee injury against Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium late last month – was involved, though this game could come too soon for him.
Benitez has decisions to make, and, almost two years into his tenure, he faces one of his biggest games yet as Newcastle manager. And anything other than a victory will mean it won’t be a happy anniversary for Benitez.