Despite the constant rumours that Rafael Benítez might finally be getting sick of keeping Mike Ashley’s money-printing business at the top table of English football, Newcastle United came out of the recent January transfer window looking just about strong enough to avoid relegation.
That Benítez would rather somebody else were at the helm of the football club is hardly a secret.
Neither is the fact that the Spaniard deserves an owner more willing to loosen their purse-strings, much to the manager’s credit.
Yet, Newcastle look on track to do exactly what Ashley had in mind this season – the bare minimum to earn another serving of the TV deal pie next time around.
Rafa toils to keep head above water
There has been a feeling for much of the season that, however little impact the Magpies have had on the Premier League, Benitez would manage to cajole his unimpressive squad into enough performances to keep themselves out of trouble.
That hasn’t exactly transpired. Newcastle are only a point above the relegation zone but, owing to the ridiculous nature of the bottom half this season, are also only six points shy of tenth-placed Everton.
But things are looking up. Despite the restrictions on his ability to manouevre in the transfer market, Benítez managed to bring in Islam Slimani and Kenedy in the closing days of the window, and the pair could make a considerable difference to their survival chances.
It is a sharp contrast to the fortunes of local rivals Sunderland and Middlesbrough in January last year. Sunderland were deep in the mire going into it, though Middlesbrough looked in good enough shape to survive.
What eventually happened was that Sunderland did nothing to haul themselves clear and Boro slammed a panicked hand on the self-destruct button that eventually did enough to take them down.
Patrick van Aanholt, perhaps the only player left in Sunderland’s one-paced squad with the ability and drive to take the Black Cats up a gear in games where they were lacking, was sold and replaced with David Moyes’ former Everton trio of Joleon Lescott, Darron Gibson, and Bryan Oviedo.
An odd 4-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace proved a false dawn, and they only won one more game in the league before finishing last.
Dead and Boro-ed
Middlesbrough started the month with grander ambitions. If Aitor Karanka had his way, they would have finished the month with a trio of Gerard Deulofeu, Bojan Krkić, and Jesé Rodríguez behind their overworked target man Álvaro Negredo.
Relegation was off the menu, replaced with a tantalising new tapas menu of attacking options for Karanka to pick and choose as he saw fit.
Instead, Boro ended up with Rudy Gestede, Patrick Bamford and, for no readily apparent reason, Adlène Guedioura.
Gastón Ramírez, their main creative outlet, threw a shock transfer request into the mix when he found out he was wanted at Leicester and the stress and disappointment eventually seemed to drive Karanka to the brink.
He was gone within a month and a half and Boro were relegated with a whimper.
Slimani and Kenedy may be just enough
Newcastle knew their expectations in the transfer window were low but Benítez managed to bring in two reasonably exciting new attacking options.
Islam Slimani hasn’t often looked like a £28 million player since joining Leicester but he certainly resembles an upgrade on Joselu, Ayoze Pérez, and Dwight Gayle, who have ten goals between them.
13 goals in a season and a half as a rotation option at Leicester isn’t a terrible return and he scored 15 and 31 in his last two years at Sporting Lisbon, scoring in the Champions League and internationally all along.
Meanwhile, Kenedy is something of an unknown quantity despite joining Chelsea three years ago, but his performance against Crystal Palace had the Toon Army raving.
Finally at a club where he can make himself a first-choice player, they will be hoping the Brazilian can kick on and prove more than a flash in the pan.
With only that single point between themselves and relegation, it is far too soon for Newcastle fans to celebrate – but they have suffered far too much at the hands of their club to be getting ahead of themselves.
In the meantime, Sunderland look to be on their way down to the third tier and Middlesbrough appear to have spent a king’s ransom on a mid-table finish in the Championship.
Theirs are cautionary tales from which Newcastle would do well to learn.
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