Will Rafa Benitez's Newcastle gamble pay off or tarnish his reputation?
Rafa Benitez never expected to be facing Sam Allardyce in a north-east relegation playoff. The Newcastle United manager got a sense of the task facing him in the 1-0 defeat by Leicester City in his first game at his new club. An awkward derby against Allardyce's Sunderland on Sunday ensures that the atmosphere for the 55-year-old's St. James' Park debut will be suitably frantic.
There are two views on whether taking the Newcastle job is a gamble for Benitez. The first imagines him in a no-lose situation. If he keeps the troubled club up, he is a hero. If they go down, who can blame him, given the mess he inherited?
The less forgiving scenario is that relegation would be another blow to his tarnished reputation. Even though untangling the chaos at Real Madrid or Newcastle is probably beyond the abilities of any man, merely taking these jobs puts a manager's credibility on the line. Benitez's many enemies in the game would queue up to crow about another perceived failure.
Allardyce is one of the most vocal of those enemies. You can imagine that nothing would delight the 61-year-old more than getting one over on Benitez. The Sunderland manager is blunt in his assessment of his rival: "I don't like him and the feeling is probably mutual," Allardyce said. It is.
Benitez has responded to the Englishman's jibes with a mixture of disdain and sarcasm. "Do you know who Sam Allardyce is? How many trophies has he won? His opinion does not have a lot of value," was Benitez's response to accusations that Liverpool's Champions League victory in 2005 had nothing to do with the manager. On another occasion, Benitez sarcastically suggested that Barcelona had copied Allardyce's notoriously physical style.
For once, though, the Sunderland manager has the advantage: he has been working with his players since replacing Dick Advocaat in October. He is also sitting two places and one precious point above Newcastle in the battle to avoid relegation.
Benitez will have had a mere 10 days to work with his team when the clubs meet. Improving Newcastle's fitness is the first thing on the new manager's agenda and organizing the side to play more intelligently. The urgency of the task is obvious with just nine games left in the season, but the situation is exacerbated because the next two matches are against the teams immediately above them -- Norwich City are next up after the international break. Lose these games and Newcastle would be almost doomed. Win them and Benitez can begin cautiously looking ahead to next season.
When he considered Newcastle's fixtures, Benitez could see there were points available. Swansea City and Crystal Palace at home represent an opportunity to earn vital wins and an away game against Aston Villa will provoke little fear. There is still scant margin for error, though, if he wants to get his career back on track.
Mike Ashley, the Newcastle owner, may be happy with mid-table Premier League mediocrity and the profits it brings, but his new manager is not. He wants to win trophies and compete at the highest level possible. St. James' Park may appear to be a huge comedown from the Bernabeu, but Benitez sees it as a way to bounce back.
He wants a job in England -- his family have put down roots on Merseyside -- and the financial firepower of the Premier League makes even the middling clubs a more attractive proposition than some of Serie A's traditional powerhouses.
The big jobs in England are either taken or unavailable to Benitez, but if he can stabilize the situation at St. James' Park and perhaps win a cup, it would propel him on to the wish list of clubs with Champions League ambitions. The first part of this equation, keeping Newcastle up, is tough enough. Winning a trophy for a club whose last domestic honour was 61 years ago would be a real achievement.
First, he has to beat Sunderland. It will not be easy. Benitez has not been involved in a relegation battle since his early years as a coach at Extremadura. Allardyce and a host of others will gloat if it goes wrong.
Benitez has a reputation of being a safety-first tactician, but Newcastle is a gamble. On Sunday he will begin to find out whether it will pay off.
Time up for Van Gaal?
Louis van Gaal has two defining games coming up. The Europa League tie against Liverpool looks like a damage limitation affair after the 2-0 defeat at Anfield. Another humiliation after being comprehensively outplayed on Merseyside would be disastrous. That match is followed three days later by the derby against Manchester City at the Etihad.
Two poor results would probably stir the boardroom at Old Trafford into serious activity. It would be hard to see Van Gaal having a future at United. So if you spot a shady figure lurking around Manchester wearing a City-Liverpool half-and-half scarf, it's probably Jose Mourinho.
Flores vs. Martinez dance-off
Quique Sanchez Flores reacted with a look of horror when asked about the music his Watford team were playing in the dressing-room after their FA Cup victory over Arsenal to reach the semifinals. "No, no good for me," he said. "Too old."
Other managers take a different approach to popular music. Everton's Roberto Martinez was filmed last month cavorting to the beat at a Jason Derulo concert. Flores needs to see the video clip to see how the Everton manager handles the pop scene.
The semifinal draw kept Everton and Watford apart and it is possible that the teams may meet in the final in May. Despite his antipathy toward young people's music, if Flores sees Martinez strutting his funky stuff, the Watford manager might suggest a dance-off instead of penalties in event of the draw. Flores would surely win. When it comes to throwing shapes, Martinez is definitely relegation material.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.