Philippe Coutinho – who failed to secure a summer move to Barcelona – is back in Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool starting XI. Coutinho (pictured) is likely to play on the left of a front three, and marking him will be a challenge for right-back DeAndre Yedlin, who has recovered from the injury which saw him miss the start of the season.
The two clubs met in April last year.
There’s a time to fight, and I was fighting to improve my team in the way I think we have to improve. Now it’s a time to help my team and improve my players.Rafa Benitez
Anfield was being rebuilt at the time. A huge new structure was being erected behind the ageing Main Stand, which was to be rebuilt that summer.
Rafa Benitez – whose side take on Liverpool at St James’s Park on Sunday – didn’t have time to build for the future. He was looking for quick fixes on the pitch.
Newcastle, 19th in the Premier League and battling to stay in the division, came from two goals down to draw 2-2.
The performance more than the result gave United fans hope at the time.
Benitez’s spirited side showed fight against their manager’s former club. They fought back and claimed an unlikely point thanks to goals from Papiss Cisse and Jack Colback.
Slowly, Benitez was moulding the players he inherited into a team. He just ran out of time that season.
A lot has happened since that sunny day in Liverpool. There’s been a relegation, a promotion (and a title win).
But Benitez – who went on to build a Championship-winning side – hasn’t spoken to owner Mike Ashley too many times since then.
Admittedly, Benitez talks to managing director Lee Charnley on a daily basis, but the relationship between manager and owner is still important.
After their last meeting in May, Benitez reaffirmed his commitment to the club in the wake of promotion.
However, the 57-year-old soon became frustrated.
Ashley watched the club’s season-opening defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, but he left the stadium without speaking to Benitez.
Targets came and went in the summer transfer window, notably Tammy Abraham and Willy Caballero, and the club ended up spending just £40million. United’s net spend was far less. It wasn’t enough.
Tellingly, amid speculation over the future of West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic last month, Benitez suggested it was not longer a long-term project.
“My aim is trying to improve things, so when I leave, whenever it is, I would like to be sure that the team and the football club will be better,” said Benitez.
“Normally, managers talk about projects saying they need four or five years.
“I’m not talking about that, because you never know in football. But when we came here, we knew there were some issues and we had to improve things.
“I’m sure we have improved some things, but we need to improve more.”
Newcastle have improved, immeasurably, under Benitez, whose captain, Jamaal Lascelles, is set to sign a new long-term deal at the club.
So why isn’t Benitez –whose deal runs to the end of next season – getting a new contract?
It was claimed earlier this week that the club was ready to open talks with Benitez over a new deal.
The story was dismissed. But why? After all, Alan Pardew and his staff were handed eight-year deals by Newcastle in 2012.
It would make sense for Ashley to tie Benitez down to a longer-term deal – sooner rather than later.
Ashley wants to sell the club, and Benitez is a huge asset. He needs to be kept at St James’s Park. He should be allowed to build a team and a squad.
Benitez was given time at Liverpool – and he delivered trophies.
Without Benitez, Newcastle isn’t such an attractive proposition to potential buyers.
But would Benitez, one of European football’s most respected coaches, sign a new deal if one was put in front of him?
For the moment, he’s just focused on individual and collective improvements.
Speaking about the club’s summer transfer business, he said: “I am very pragmatic.
“There’s a time to fight, and I was fighting to improve my team in the way I think we have to improve.
“Now it’s a time to help my team and improve my players. I must improve every single player.”
It was a clever way of handling a potentially difficult question.
We understand there will be money to spend in January, but how much?
Benitez isn’t content for Newcastle to make up the numbers in the Premier League. He wants to challenge for trophies.
The fighting has stopped.
It’s time for talking to start.