Big Sam and Rafa Benitez: Legacy Hunting with England's Elite?
Merseyside staged the clash between two clubs in the top half of the table as a familiar foe took his group of high-spirited, on the back of four victories on the bounce, players to Goodison Park.
Former Liverpool boss, Rafa Benitez has managed to breathe life into the Magpies, by first lifting them back up to the top flight after a season in the Championship. Meanwhile, for Everton, Sam Allardyce has managed to restore some of the glory to the Toffies - whose presence is now almost sacrosanct in England’s top flight, by managing to stabilise a club which was very much on the edge till his Dutch predecessor, Ronald Koeman, was in charge.
Big Sam getting cramped in Goodison?
Everton fans seem far from satisfied with the stability provided by Big Sam, who himself was in charge of Newcastle United for a brief spell of six odd months. In a recent poll conducted by his current club, asking fans to rate their manager’s performance on 10, the Goodison faithful blasted Allardyce for not just the lingering inconsistency of his side but also for his tactically-skewed footballing philosophy.
To be honest, we were just as surprised to see the Englishman get appointed as head coach of a club which is generally associated with a far more adventurous style of play. This season though, the shortage of goals and attacking football, in general, seems to have rubbed the home crowd the wrong way.
One banner called for the manager to resign but a goal by the former Arsenal man Theo Walcott shielded the former Bolton manager from further vitriol as he lifted, not just the grim occasion but also Everton into eight place in the table - their highest since August of last year.
Coupled with the fact that the three points came against their closest rival in the league, with the two sides separated by just two points before the start of play, the win ought to have provided Big Sam with some further runway.
Rafa from the ashes...
Newcastle, after taking the '90s by storm, have faded away ever since Sir Bobby Robson stepped down from the top job at St. James’ Park. Much like their opponents on the night, Newcastle have generally revelled under the stable leadership and have failed to adapt to the modern-day norms of constant managerial turnover. An assumption furthered by the performance under Kenny Dalglish and Kevin Keegan, and more recently under Alan Pardew.
Everton similarly have failed to replicate the success they'd gotten used to under David Moyes, with both club and manager suffering in their respective pursuits for footballing glory ever since the separation.
Both men have enjoyed successes in separate circumstances and under different challenges. Rafael Benitez has been in charge of the biggest clubs in the world with Liverpool, Napoli and Real Madrid. HIs crowning moment coming on a glorious night in Istanbul with the Reds.
The stint at Real Madrid was a lot more inauspicious for the Spaniard. The walls closed in really soon with not just the fans and the management turning on Benitez but also his own set of players. They claimed the two, Rafa and Real, were incompatible due to their divergent footballing philosophies.
All this meant the Newcastle manager had to pack up and leave and try to build a legacy from scratch. He headed to Tyneside, hoping to resurrect his managerial career.
Failing to prevent the Magpies' eventual slide into the Championship in his two months at the helm, Benitez stuck to his guns, and with Newcastle, and got them roaring back into the top flight after owning the second-tier of English football.
This season, he has built a squad with a limited budget and comparatively less-talented group of players and has galvanised them to victories at home against the big boys Manchester United and Arsenal. The one against Arsenal proving to be the last straw for a certain French colleague of his.
Also read: Arsenal's tryst with uncertainty
A comfortable mid-table finish is on the cards and that will provide the perfect foundation for a push back towards the summit of the Premier League. With Benitez using his astute tactical thinking to amalgamate a plethora of young players, it would take a courageous man to bet against Rafa achieving what he had set out to initially at St. James Park.
On the night
Big Sam managed to pull one over his Spanish counterpart on the night in a game that was constantly on a knife's edge, with both defences coming out on top in most battles. A solitary strike, with a great deal of luck involved with the ricochet falling at Walcott's feet, was enough to put some breathing space between the two sides in a season where both clubs ought to be satisfied with the final league position in retrospect.
Theo Walcott proved to be the difference in the end, a quality forward in the Everton ranks, while in contrast, the lack of firepower in the legendary black and white of Newcastle was glaring.
Even as the result and the current squad depth and quality might be favouring the blue half of Merseyside, the club on Tyneside will be buoyant about their recent performances, and the consistency and heart that Benitez' men have regularly shown in the top flight this season.
A last-minute divine interception by Séamus Coleman to head the ball away from an awkward position epitomised what the Toffees had been missing all season - the dynamic duo of the wing-backs. With Coleman alongside Leighton Baines back in the side, the prospects for Everton look bright once again.
The bigger picture
In 2016, the Football Association decided that Sam Allardyce had to go as England manager following the revelations in a Telegraph investigation because it is “the guardian of the game” and he had fallen below the standards expected.
After getting disgraced and removed from England's top job, Allardyce will be hoping that he can reinstate the reputation that he had garnered in all these years as a top-level football manager. A reputation built on undeniable success at keeping teams up in the top flight.
Rafa Benitez meanwhile, will be hoping he can leave behind the hovering dark clouds of the Madrid fiasco and build a taint-free reputation in England, like he had with Liverpool all those years ago.
It will be interesting to see which of the two exciting projects attains the desired success: Big Sam with Everton or Rafa Benitez with Newcastle?