Imagine how far Rafa Benitez could take Newcastle United given more time – and more money
It was a happy anniversary at Newcastle United for Rafa Benitez – and an unhappy return to the North East for Jordan Pickford.
And that made the club’s 3-2 win over Everton, a fifth successive home victory, all the more memorable for fans.
Today marks the third anniversary of Benitez’s appointment at the club, which is 13th in the Premier League table and six points clear of the relegation zone with eight games left to play.
Benitez, United’s manager, inherited a demoralised and disorganised side from Steve McClaren. Too many players were disinterested.
So much has changed since then. And it’s changed for the better.
And Saturday’s victory underlined how far the club has come under Benitez, who was the calmest person at St James’s Park.
Yes, Benitez’s team conceded two poor goals. But they also fought back strongly and righted the wrong of Lee Mason’s failure to send off Pickford, who was as much concerned about winding up Newcastle fans as he was goalkeeping for Everton.
Pickford, unquestionably, should have been dismissed.
With United trailing to Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s 18th-minute header, Pickford rugby-tackled Salomon Rondon after fumbling a ball from Matt Ritchie.
It was deliberate, and not accidental. The double-jeopardy rule didn’t apply. It was a penalty and a sending off.
Bizarrely, Mason didn’t even book Pickford, who saved Ritchie’s penalty with his legs. To make matters worse, Everton were 2-0 up within the space of a minute thanks to a close-range goal from Richarlison.
Benitez, however, saw a way back for his team.
Mason, meanwhile, headed for the tunnel as fans chanted “you’re not fit to referee”.
Newcastle’s manager didn’t rip into his players. Instead, he stayed calm during the half-time interval.
“The players were a little bit down, but the main thing was to stay calm,” said Benitez, who had to replace injured captain Jamaal Lascelles with Paul Dummett at the break.
The players, according to match-winner Ayoze Perez, returned to the field with the “belief” that they could win. He told them to step up.
Driven on by the injustice of the Pickford-Rondon incident, they took the game to Everton in the second half.
Rondon put one chance just wide, and Pickford responded by laughing and sticking his tongue out. He wasn’t laughing at the final whistle.
Perez, pushed up as a second striker by Benitez, was causing problems with Rondon, and the pair combined superbly in the 65th minute. Rondon played the ball to Perez, who didn’t even look before taking a touch and playing a return pass to the striker, who had continued his run into the box.
Rondon’s left-footed volley, which bounced under Pickford, was even better.
It was game on from that moment on. On came Kenedy and Jonjo Shelvey, and Perez levelled in the 81st minute after Pickford beat away a fierce shot from Miguel Almiron.
What happened next was telling. Almiron and Dummett ran to celebrate with Perez. Isaac Hayden, however, cut short the celebration and pushed his team-mates back on to the field.
There was a game to be won, and Dummett had a shot turned round the post by Pickford.
Everton failed to clear the resulting corner, and Rondon, from an offside position, touched the ball to Perez, who drove it home with six minutes of normal time left to play.
This time, the celebration wasn’t cut short by Hayden. The game had been won thanks to the outstanding efforts of Perez, who has all but silenced the critics who had questioned his place in the team in the first half of the season.
Perez, we know, can finish, and with Rondon and Almiron by his side, he’s getting better chances in better areas. He’s playing higher up the field, and he’s hurting teams.
Benitez has built a spirited, competitive team, one which is unrecognisable from the one he inherited, and which has enough quality to compete higher up the Premier League.