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Rafael Benitez makes Newcastle believe again as Toon seal promotion

Newcastle have achieved promotion to the Premier League at the first attempt, after Rafa Benitez guided them through a tricky season in the Championship.

They were expected to dominate the division, but ultimately found things a little tougher going and will, in all likelihood, finish second behind prospective champions Brighton.

So how have they done it? How different is this Newcastle team to the one that has played in the Premier League previously?

Who's the manager?

At the start of the 2015-16 season, Benitez took charge of a team featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. The thought of him, just a year later, leading a team into the Championship was odd to say the least, but Benitez's role with Newcastle has been more important than simply as a manager.

The idea that Benitez, a multiple European trophy and league title-winner, would want anything to do with them was galvanising enough, and the often unpopular club ownership were at least sensible enough to basically hand him control of the club last summer.

Interestingly, after promotion was confirmed by beating Preston on Monday night, Benitez refused to confirm that he will remain in charge next season. That's probably just a further assertion of control, a reminder that unless he gets what he wants he will be off, but for the moment he is keeping everyone on their toes.

Rafa Benitez thumbs up
Rafael Benitez chose to stay at Newcastle and rebuild after he was relegated with them last season.

Who's their star man?

The most eye-catching performer for Newcastle this season has been top-scorer Dwight Gayle. Purchased from Crystal Palace last season to score the goals that would get Newcastle out of the Championship, Gayle has done that with gusto, scoring 22 in his 25 starts.

However, Gayle has missed chunks of the season with injury, and if you speak to most regular Newcastle observers they will tell you that centre-back Ciaran Clark has been their player of the year. Helped by Benitez's famous attention to the defensive arts, Clark has flourished after a tricky few years with Aston Villa, and will be one of the building blocks of their top flight campaign.

Dwight Gayle
Dwight Gayle's goals propelled the Toon back to the big time at the first time of asking.

Who are their other big players?

In a team constructed at no little cost (Benitez spent around £55million last summer, offset by sales of roughly £80m), two other men have stood out.

Matt Ritchie, who slightly surprisingly dropped down a division from Bournemouth to join Newcastle, has been just as outstanding as he was when the Cherries won promotion in 2015, menacing defences across the Championship with his ferocious shooting and crossing from the right flank.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the park Jonjo Shelvey has the ability to control games. If he can curb his occasional lapses in discipline and an infuriating urge to play a 40-yard pass when a five-yard one would do, he will be a key part of their side next season.

How do they play?

Much like any Benitez side, Newcastle aren't exactly an expansive, carefree outfit, the ex-Real Madrid coach having built a team that often errs on the side of caution, but that doesn't mean they can't or don't play entertaining football. With Ritchie, Shelvey, Ayoze Perez, Christian Atsu and others flitting around, they could hardly avoid being entertaining.

They sometimes pass for passing's sake, perhaps part of Benitez's long-held obsession with control, and they will presumably note that was one of the reasons Middlesbrough haven't succeeded in the Premier League this season.

Stoke's Ryan Shawcross has been mooted as a potential signing in the summer.

Where will they need to strengthen?

Plenty of areas, despite their heavy-spending last summer. Another central defender is required to play alongside Clark, with the likes of Stoke's Ryan Shawcross and Middlesbrough's Ben Gibson mentioned as potential arrivals.

A right-back would be useful as no player has really held down the position this season, and a possible upgrade in central midfield might be useful too, even though Shelvey, Isaac Hayden and Jack Colback are all excellent players.

Left wing is a definite area for improvement, with some talk they could even bring Andros Townsend back, a year after selling him to Crystal Palace. Plus of course at least one striker should arrive, with Burnley's Andre Gray and even an eye-catching move for Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge mentioned.

How will they cope in the Premier League?

This season's Premier League has shown that the gap between the strugglers and those in "comfortable" mid-table is really not that big, so assuming Benitez stays and money is spent in the manner most expect it to be, a top-half finish is not unrealistic.

They have a strong spine, a gaggle of decent goalkeepers, the beginnings of a potent attack but perhaps most importantly, from a fans' perspective at least, they have enthusiasm.

Apathy has threatened to destroy the club in the past, but if Benitez carries on as he is, and is allowed to do things his way by the club hierarchy, they could flourish again.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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