Newcastle United 3-0 Chelsea: The sky’s the limit for Rafael Benitez

Newcastle ensured a top-half finish after an emphatic victory over sorry Chelsea.

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REUTERS/Scott Heppell

Chelsea saw their faint hopes of Champions League football demolished by a rampant Newcastle on their final league match of the season. 

In truth, it looked like they never believed – it was a  disinterested team saving themselves for next week’s FA Cup final and the World Cup. 

If they thought Newcastle wouldn’t punish their lethargy, they were sorely mistaken. From the first minute, they took control of the game and camped in Chelsea’s half. 

Good value for their lead, they were unfortunate to go into the break only one goal ahead but took their chances in the second half to record a deserved, convincing victory.

Positivity has returned to St. James Park 

The concept of parity in the Premier League is on life support as the big six pull further away from the chasing pack. However, Newcastle are providing a defibrillator as St. James Park is somewhere for the elite to dread visiting. Manchester United, Arsenal and now Chelsea have lost there. Liverpool were held to a draw. 

The most prolific goalscorers in Premier League history, Manchester City, only scored one on their visit to Tyneside; a scoreline that turned out to be vital to Newcastle’s top-half placing, given Bournemouth and Crystal Palace finished level on 44 points but shipped four and five goals respectively to the champions. Something worth remembering, given the criticism of Newcastle’s defensive approach that night.

Wor Flags, an initiative by the fans, has brought a classy continental choreography to the Gallowgate End. Before kick-off, they unfurled a banner reading “Where there is unity, there is always victory”. On this evidence, it’s hard to disagree.

Reuters/Lee Smith

Earlier in the season, the group made a pointed reference to Mike Ashley’s ownership in a display that featured one of Kevin Keegan’s most famous quotes: 

Don’t ever give up on your club. Keep supporting it, it’s your club and trust me, one day you will get your club back and it will be everything you wanted it to be. Newcastle United is bigger than anyone. It hurts I know, but just keep going. He is only one man, we are a city, a whole population. Trust me.

But it appears the group have the club’s blessing to continue, and with one notable exception, everyone appears to be pulling in the same direction. A fanbase that are united in support of their players and manager is an increasingly rare thing in football, and on afternoons like this, there’s a genuine beauty in it. 

Newcastle outclassed Chelsea 

The uninitiated would have been forgiven in thinking the team in black and white were last season’s Premier League champions, with the visitors topping the second tier, rather than the other way round.

On his last opportunity of the season, Jonjo Shelvey made his strongest argument yet for going to Russia. Helping Newcastle to exert control, his distribution was exceptional – almost every Newcastle attack involved him in some way. 

He also showed his knack for a sweetly struck shot, testing Courtois and coming close a few times, before he got his reward as Ayoze Perez flicked on a long-range effort to double Newcastle’s lead. It would be worth considering him if it wasn’t a problem position for England but, with circumstances as they are, it shouldn’t even be a discussion. 

Reuters/Lee Smith

Mohamed Diame continued his stunning reinvention as a powerhouse in midfield, bullying N’Golo Kante and Tiémoué Bakayoko to wrestle possession. 

The pairing of Jamaal Lascelles and Florian Lejeune ahead of Martin Dubravka have a case as the strongest defensive unit outside of the top four, utterly untroubled by Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud here. 

Perez worked hard again and continued his great form again, getting his ninth and tenth goals of the season and tying Matt Ritchie for most assists, with five – nobody could ask any more from a supporting striker. 

It was a performance that defies all logic: six of Chelsea’s starting eleven and all three of their substitutes cost more than Newcastle’s long-departed record signing, Michael Owen. Nine of Newcastle’s starting eleven were playing Championship football last season. The two others were a modest £9 million signing from Eibar, Lejeune, and a loanee from Sparta Prague, Dúbravka. 

For Rafael Benitez to get this result and performance out of the tools at his disposal is a microcosm of the incredible work he’s done all season. This was just the latest exhibit that the Spaniard has built a team that are greater than the sum of their parts while improving almost every individual at the club.

Mike Ashley has to back Benitez.

Recent seasons have seen Newcastle making a habit of memorable final days at St. James’ Park. 

Last season, they defeated Barnsley 3-0 to finish first in the Championship after Brighton dropped seven points in their final three games. Three years ago Jonás Gutiérrez, returning from cancer treatment, scored against West Ham, helping to ensure their survival his last appearance for the club. 

Fans stayed behind that day to protest Mike Ashley’s ownership, and there have been several other toxic days in St. James’ recent history, in the most hapless days of Alan Pardew, John Carver and Steve McClaren. The stewardship of Benitez is helping to extinguish such memories.

It’s the memories of 2016 that are the most pertinent. Newcastle, already relegated, and reduced to ten men, scored five goals past Tottenham in a stunning victory as the supporters serenaded Benitez with chants of “we want you to stay” in a gesture that ultimately worked. 

REUTERS/Scott Heppell

Two years later, the 3-0 hammering of Chelsea might have resembled the most imaginative pipe dreams of Newcastle’s fans that day: Benitez still in the dugout, guiding Newcastle to a top-half finish after topping the Championship on first ask.

He’s done this in spite of the club, rather than because of it. At no point in Benitez’ time at Newcastle has the club made a significant outlay in the transfer market – which is all the more reason to do it now. 

The last time the club made ambitious moves in the transfer market was in 2016 when the club brought in Aleksandar Mitrovic, Georginio Wijnaldum, Florian Thauvin and Chancel Mbemba but that was backing a manager as uninspiring and out of his depth as Steve McClaren. 

It’s counterintuitive to back a manager like that and not Benitez but for Ashley there’s a perverse logic to it: he’s now got a manager that can overcompensate for a lack of investment. Frankly, the club has taken advantage of Benitez’s quality. 

If that’s the case again this summer, he would be fully justified in walking out. Clubs below Newcastle in the table could give him more financial backing, while the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Leicester could do with someone with his acumen and calm leadership.

With a manager of this pedigree, there are opportunity and potential at Newcastle for the first time in years. They cannot afford to let him go. 

What do you think Rafael Benitez’s future holds? Let us know by commenting below.

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