FOR the first time in almost 20 years, Rafa Benitez is going into a season knowing he is in for a relegation fight.
The Spaniard is used to challenging at the top of the table, whether it be with Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli, Real Madrid, or even Newcastle in their Championship campaign.
But because of the Toon’s failure to seriously strengthen this summer, Benitez faces the prospect of a season-long battle at the bottom.
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And that is not something he has experienced since 1998-99, when he was in charge of Extremadura, who finished 17th in La Liga and went down after losing a relegation play-off with Villarreal.
Benitez, of course, was tasked with keeping Newcastle up when he was first appointed at St James’ Park in March 2016.
Yet going into a campaign with that sole aim in mind is not something he is over familiarly with – and it is exactly what he was hoping to avoid.
Newcastle have brought in five players for £31.4million so far this summer.
But the signings are not of the quality Benitez wanted, and neither has he got in the quantity he felt was required.
So ahead of Sunday’s season opener with Tottenham, the Toon boss admitted: “This is a totally different challenge.
“We have to be happy because we are back in the Premier League.
“But the only way we can have good aspirations is to improve the squad now.
“Last year we were much better than the other teams in 70 per cent of the games and we had to manage expectations.
“This year it could be the total opposite so we have to make sure we are mentally strong when we are losing.
“The last time it was like this for me was with Extremadura – so it’s a long time ago.
“When I decided to stay with Extremadura I had the same idea that I have now.
“I was happy in the village and I said that we could only do our best.
“Our first game in La Liga was against Barcelona.
“We had gone from the second division and it was boom – we were in the Nou Camp against Barcelona.
“We lost 1-0. It was a goal by Rivaldo – and it went in off his shinpad.
“At the end of the season we were relegated in a play-off.
“You have to manage in a different way.
“The main thing is to be sure that you have a strong mentality in the team.
“We have a good team spirit here and hopefully we can do well for each other.”
This will be the first time Benitez has been in charge of a Premier League club at the start of the season since he was at Liverpool in 2009.
He believes the challenge of bossing in England’s top flight is much more difficult now than it was a decade ago.
But Benitez reckons he is a better manager from his time in other leagues – including the Championship.
He said: “Some other managers haven’t done that before like I have.
“After so many years at the top and winning some trophies, it was different.
“So in terms of knowledge and experience, yes I am better.
“I now know a lot of things that I didn’t know when I first arrived in England.
“I learn every year and I have changed a lot.
“But most of the top managers are foreign and that means they know football all around the world and they can bring in good players.
“It is even more difficult now than it was in the past.”
This year will see Benitez pit his wits against his old foe Jose Mourinho, as well as the likes of Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte.
But Rafa says he is not interested in winning battles between bosses.
And has also played down the role the big-name managers have in the success of the top teams, in what could be perceived as a subtle dig at some of his rivals.
Benitez added: “In my experience, I have seen a lot of managers win only because their players are so good.
“So the name of the manager doesn’t matter – it’s about the team.
“When you have a very strong team then it doesn’t matter if the manager isn’t good enough because you can still win.
“The reality is that the best managers in the Premier League have been there a while and they have been able to spend some money on top-class players, so they have a better squad than we have.
“Football is special because in one game, anything can happen.
“But over a full season the strongest team is at the top of the table.”
And for the first time in a long time, Benitez knows there is no way that will be his side.
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