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Why Newcastle fans fear player with “point to prove” – and pine for Rafa Benitez

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Newcastle may look safe from relegation, but there isn’t much confidence heading into this weekend’s trip to Liverpool.

The Reds drew 1-1 at Leeds on Monday night, as they dropped further points in the Premier League top-four race.

Attention now turns to Saturday’s visit of a Magpies side who are still struggling but have only lost one of their last seven matches, pulling clear of the relegation zone.

Despite seemingly staying up for another year, there is still a feeling of discontent at St James’ Park, with Mike Ashley and Steve Bruce both unpopular figures.

Ahead of the game, we spoke to writer and Newcastle fan Dave Black (@cm9798) to get his assessment of the Magpies’ season, Liverpool’s Champions League hopes and more.

 

Firstly, let’s hear your thoughts on the Super League debacle…

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, who announced in a joint statement they are to join a new European Super League (Yui Mok/PA)

It was an awful idea based on pure greed. I don’t think many fans of the teams involved wanted it to happen, but it would have been them who suffered the most.

I always thought it was just a power grab against UEFA over the Champions League reforms, but it surprised me just how parties went about dealing with it, to the point where I couldn’t see a good way it played out.

Thankfully, things escalated quickly.

In Newcastle terms, I thought it would harm the supposed takeover chances. Firstly, there’s no way Mike Ashley would have got the price he wanted, as the Premier League as a brand would be worth a lot less.

Secondly, why would you buy a Premier League club in that climate? It would have been so uncertain.

Taking our ownership issue aside, though, my support would never have been affected too much.

If there had been less money in the league, it might actually have been a bit of a reset for football in this country.

Fewer games on TV wouldn’t bother me and a more even league would have excited me, but I had doubts over how much appeal there would have been if there’s no end goal.

 

How would you assess Newcastle’s season? Will you avoid relegation now?

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 30, 2020: Newcastle United's Matt Ritchie during the FA Premier League match between Newcastle United FC and Liverpool FC at St. James’ Park. The game ended in a goal-less draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

We should avoid relegation now but I wouldn’t consider this a successful season.

We finished 13th in 2019/20, and having signed the likes of Callum Wilson and Jamal Lewis in the close season, I don’t think it was unrealistic to at least match that if not improve on it.

This squad isn’t going to pull up any trees, but it also shouldn’t be fighting relegation.

While you could argue we’ve been a little bit unlucky with injuries, it has been a feature of Steve Bruce teams that they pick up a lot of injuries and I doubt we’re doing much to manage these situations.

There’s been a lot written about how little we actually train, which really shows in our approach to matches.

We were on a run of two victories in 21 before our recent wins, which is basically Sheffield United-esque.

In short, we’re being hamstrung by out-of-date management, which is going to stop us ever really going anywhere – but we should at least stay up now.

 

Will Bruce be replaced in the summer? If he is, who would be your ideal replacement?

Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez celebrates with the Sky Bet Championship trophy after the final whistle during the Sky Bet Championship match at St James' Park, Newcastle.

If Ashley remains in control of the club then no, I think Bruce will be here until the bitter end.

I think Ashley likes that Bruce won’t fight him on anything as, let’s face it, he is very fortunate to be in a Premier League job, not least his alleged dream job.

Obviously Rafa Benitez was the opposite of this and wanted the very best for the club and the city, whereas Ashley wants to finish 17th and anything else is a bonus.

The alleged takeover rumbles on and on, and if that goes through then the possibilities are endless.

I think Benitez would be their No. 1 choice and he seems to be holding out for a Premier League job. I’d be delighted if he came back and was given the proper tools he was denied previously.

If it’s still Ashley and Bruce goes, maybe Eddie Howe is as good as we could hope for. Even then, though, he might have options that are less dramatic than the Ashley version of Newcastle.

 

Who have been Newcastle’s three best players so far this season?

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 30, 2020: Liverpool’s Nathaniel Phillips (L) and Newcastle United's Callum Wilson during the FA Premier League match between Newcastle United FC and Liverpool FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

As many as three?

The season has sort of been split into three parts. A reasonable start, a tragic middle and so far a bit of recovery at the end.

Nobody has been great across all three parts, whether it be due to injury or form, but I’ve got to say Wilson as my first pick.

When I previewed our game in December, I said Federico Fernandez and Karl Darlow.

The former has barely played since due to injury and Darlow lost his place when Martin Dubravka regained full fitness, so that shows you how little consistency we’ve had.

I’m going to champion Miguel Almiron, who has somehow kept going despite playing in several different positions. We miss him a lot when he’s not available.

We can’t really speak about our best players without discussing Allan Saint-Maximin.

He’s only played 18 games and he seems to be perennially either coming off injured or coming back from injury, but we’re so much better with him in the team.

 

Have any individuals been particularly poor?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 14, 2019: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum (C) and Newcastle United's Jonjo Shelvey during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Newcastle United FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Jonjo Shelvey is probably attracting the most criticism at the moment. You’ll know him from when he was a Liverpool player and most of his flaws are still there.

He’s slow, he likes a Hollywood pass and he can be a liability.

We’ve now got him playing in front of the defence, which at least negates the fact he’s not exactly box-to-box, but he is ponderous on the ball and giving away set-pieces in bad positions.

Bruce absolutely loves him and has made him captain in Jamaal Lascelles’ absence, so I think a lot of fans see him as the manager’s pet.

It doesn’t help that Joe Willock inexplicably can’t get in the team, despite gaining us four points in recent weeks.

 

Switching our attention to Liverpool, why do you think they have struggled this season?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, March 7, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp reacts during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Fulham FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I think the main reason is the injuries, particularly in defence.

We spoke about it earlier in the year, but to lose your three best centre-halves for significant periods of the season is a tough pill for any club to swallow.

Add in your captain and various other key players and it has been really difficult, exacerbated by the lack of fans who can really carry a team through a crisis.

You’ve had an incredible few years and I just feel like it’s been one hit too many this season.

I’ve felt genuinely sorry for Jurgen Klopp, who has looked broken by it all at some of the lower points, but I understand he’s had some family issues, too.

I can’t even fathom how he has come to terms with that in the circumstances.

 

Do you think they will secure a top-four finish?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 10, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold (R) celebrates with team-mate Xherdan Shaqiri after scoring the second goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I do. Your run-in isn’t the worst and getting a win at Anfield last weekend will hopefully break that hoodoo.

West Ham‘s players are dropping like flies and Leicester are looking particularly wobbly right now, so I think you will have a strong finish and salvage the season.

 

Looking ahead to Saturday’s game, who do you fear most?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 17, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC at Anfield. The game ended in a 0-0 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino – take your pick really!

We typically don’t turn up in away games against the ‘big six’, so I wouldn’t expect us to follow in the footsteps of Brighton, Burnley and Fulham and spring a shock result.

Although you haven’t hit the heights at home you’ve got players capable of taking the game away from us.

We’ve been playing wing-backs recently, so I’m also wary of your two full-backs overloading us.

Trent Alexander-Arnold is playing like he has a point to prove all of a sudden and Andy Robertson is a model of consistency.

We’ve had Jacob Murphy and Matt Ritchie playing wing-back and neither are particularly great defensively.

 

Where do you see the key battles taking place?

Fabinho badge general Liverpool FC (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Fabinho being back in midfield is huge for you and I fully expect him to dominate Shelvey and Sean Longstaff.

That and the aforementioned battle between your full-backs and our wing-backs are the key battles for me.

Saint-Maximin will hopefully be fit, which will at least give you something to worry about going the other way.

 

Finally, hit us with your prediction…

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 10, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp (L) with match-winning goal-scorer Trent Alexander-Arnold after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

All signs point to a Liverpool win. I never expect anything with the way Bruce sets us up, and even when we win, it’s pretty fortunate.

I think we will have a feeling that we’re out of trouble and you will want a result more than us.

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