Newcastle United celebrated Rafa’s 50th game in charge when Bristol City arrived at St. James’ Park. We take a look at Rafa’s five most memorable/important matches.
5. Newcastle United vs Manchester City 1-1
This match was only his 6th game in charge last season. However, it was the match that made supporters realise that the current squad wasn’t actually half bad. Despite being devoid of confidence, the players stood up and were counted.
The game also got a lot of fans on-side with Rafa. Many were doubting his ability to put up a fight in a relegation battle. After 14 minutes United were 1-0 down to an Aguero header, despite him being several yards offside. Under McClaren, we would’ve just rolled over and taken a beating from one of the best teams in the league.
Instead, Rafa had already installed a new mentality into the team, as his double training sessions began to show their worth. With Vurnon Anita popping up with a beautiful goal, where he cut inside and curled one into the bottom corner in the 31st minute. From then on, United were never troubled or tested against a very strong Manchester City side. But Newcastle left the game disappointed, feeling like they’ve dropped two points.
This was a pivotal game in Rafa’s current tenure as United manager. It got a lot of fans onside with his beliefs and supporters began to hope that Newcastle were capable of staying up. This also gave the players belief and confidence, which in turn allowed them to go on and finish the season unbeaten.
4. Newcastle United vs Birmingham City 4-0
This match wasn’t just pivotal in Rafa’s Newcastle career, but in the club’s season as a whole.
United had just come off the back of three defeats in the last three matches, and cracks were beginning to show. We couldn’t counter attack at home, as away teams were happy to sit back and let NUFC have the ball. They knew our defence would have a mistake in them.
However, in this game it was completely different. Rafa sent the players out to attack from the very first minute. They targeted Birmingham’s two CB’s, who were an obvious weakness. This plan worked to great effect as United scored after 18 minutes. Then, six minutes later, Gayle grabbed his second of the match.
The team operated ruthlessly, and it’s was one of the best performances I’ve witnessed this season.
It showed Rafa’s ability to sniff out a weakness in the opposition and discover their game plan early on. Newcastle’s dominance showed, as they ended up having 20 shots (10 on goal), and Birmingham had five (two on goal). Birmingham was, at the time, a side who were flying high under Rowett and were comfortably in the play-offs.
3. Newcastle United vs Norwich 4-3
What a game this was. Another contender for the best game of the season, and definitely the best game I have witnessed this year.
The match showcased the transformation the team had undergone under Rafa. Especially compared to the majority of the 15/16 season. It was clear that the players that now wore the NUFC badge, actually cared about the club.
The game required mental strength more than actual ability. With Norwich leading 3-1 with only 20 minutes to go, a lot of fans were expecting more goals from NCFC, or a boring last 20 minutes.
However, it had been a while since United supporters had experienced a manager like Rafa. He never gives up and analyses where his team is at, and what it might need to change the flow of the game.
When it got to 3-2 in the 90th minute, fans became disappointed that United couldn’t rescue a point. Suddenly Newcastle got two goals within 60 seconds. Supporters couldn’t believe that NUFC had come from behind with such a deficit, going on to win the game. This was one of the most important games of the season. If Norwich had won that game, they would’ve gone eight points ahead of Newcastle.
What followed though was Norwich’s downfall and ended up costing them the chance them the chance to achieve automatic promotion. It was also the match that began our nine game win streak, which in turn set us up at top of the table.
2. Fulham FC vs Newcastle United 1-0
This game was a very frustrating one for Rafa and all Newcastle fans. It was the first game of the season where many fans were expecting to dominate teams. With the obvious struggles in the odd game.
Though this game didn’t fit the script at all. United were boring, lacklustre and didn’t seem like they wanted to try. Many fans, including myself, were slightly worried that if our attitude remained like this, we could be in for a tough season. It turned out to be one the most important games of the season.
Newcastle got beaten by a good Huddersfield side next week, but the following match NUFC won 4-1 vs Reading. As a result, it kick-started United’s season. Fulham made us realise that every game was going to be tough, and we’d have to be at the top of our game to win every match.
Rafa learned a lot from this game. He learned that teams would set up to be tough to break down. Teams would sit back and hit us on the counter or utilise set pieces. This is why Rafa had to train his CB’s on how to be comfortable on the ball.
1. Newcastle United vs Tottenham Hotspur 5-1
In my opinion this is the game that changed everything. This is the game that made it all possible. If we as fans didn’t create such an amazing atmosphere, and made the whole day about Rafa, he wouldn’t have stayed.
The fans made Rafa feel like Newcastle was his new home. Supporters wanted Benitez to stay for many years to come.
This game will always be remembered for the atmosphere. While being showered with songs and chants, Rafa oversaw the best match of United’s season. He managed to get Newcastle’s relegated team together one last time to give the fans what they deserved. Supporters went to the game thinking they’d get beat. But they were fully focused on making it a positive atmosphere.
United went on to win 5-1 against a Tottenham side that were second in the Premier League at kick-off. Fans saw a side of their club they’d not witnessed in years. There was a bittersweet feeling for supporters to see a relegated team perform so well. The game in itself had no real importance.
It was a sign of things to come. The Rafalution had begun at Newcastle United. Mitrovic scored and had an amazing game, then he got a red card and fans realised he still had that in his game. We witnessed Sissoko being club captain and actually working hard for once. A delighted Rolando Aarons, who had been riddled with injuries that season, jumped into the crowd to celebrate after he scored goal.
United finished the game with 10 men, and gave Pochettino his worst ever summer.
So there you have it.
My list of the top 5 games under Rafael Benitez. Long may this joy and happiness continue under his reign as manager.