“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
― Sun Tzu,
Ahead of an EFL Cup Quarter-Final with Hull, Newcastle United tasted defeat against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday afternoon as Rafa Benitez failed to capitalize on an early chance to write his name into the NUFC history books by being the first club manager to oversee 10 successive victories in all competitions.
Fielding a side as weak as any seen in black and white this season with an altered back four and disjointed midfield and attack, Newcastle slumped to a 0-1 defeat against relegation-threatened Rovers in front of a watching Alan Shearer, a legend for both clubs.
Yet it wasn’t all Rafa’s fault for resting top scorer Dwight Gayle, Club Captain Jamaal Lascelles and the reborn Yoan Gouffran ahead of a pivotal EFL Cup Clash away to Hull tomorrow night; referee David Coote favoured Owen Coyle’s away team throughout and missed this clear penalty for handball at The Gallowgate End.
Neil Swarbrick is the referee whom the anti-corruption spotlight will be trained on tomorrow night after Newcastle were on the receiving end of extremely unjust refereeing last season contributing to their relegation.
Benitez’s team selection left a lot to be desired with full-back Jesus Gamez making only a second start of the season looking off the pace and Chancel Mbemba, also thrust in from the cold, looking rusty.
A uncharacteristically young, unmotivated and complacent Newcastle would have benefited from the fire and experience of midfield veteran and general Cheick Tiote, whom surely former Newcastle boss Alan Pardew will be looking at in January to arrest the slump of his Crystal Palace side.
Unfortunately for The Magpies, Jack Colback and Grant Hanley were unavailable due to injury forcing Benitez into perhaps more changes than was necessary yet he remained bullish in defeat in defence of his rotation policy:
“Yeah, we were successful making changes before, so we have to do it.
“I think we have a squad that’s been competing really well. On Saturday we had some injury problems with players like Jack Colback and others had to play.
“Christian Atsu, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Isaac Hayden, Chancel Mbemba and Ayoze Perez had to play.”
For the second time this season – the other being the Wolves 0-2 home defeat that followed a 6-0 victory at QPR – Benitez could be accused of complacency and taking Championship opposition Newcastle were expected to beat too lightly and paying the price of defeat.
The Chronicle’s John Gibson rightly points out that even Rafa Benitez can get it wrong on occasion like Saturday:
“Now I am not turning on Rafa and neither will the fans. Certainly not. We are all grateful for what he has done already. He can walk on water. Yet when the recipient of so much love and affection you must be man enough to accept occasional criticism when you get it wrong.”
EFL Cup Date With Destiny
However, both Saturday and that Wolves fixture in September were three days before Tuesday night EFL Cup ties and Newcastle head to their Quarter Final against Hull City on the back of a loss following a rotated team.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Newcastle fan who would swap a Cup exit for a rare Championship defeat that in the grand scheme of things a table-topping Newcastle United can absorb despite disappointment on Saturday.
The Geordie fanbase is very protective of the manager who has restored pride and hope into Newcastle upon-Tyne and its historic football club despite narrowly failing to avoid relegation from The Premier League last season yet is on course to bounce straight back into the top flight.
This ‘In Rafa We Trust’ is the mantra of the entire Newcastle support and one echoed by the players, for example Mo Diame, who swapped Premier League football with Hull City for another Championship promotion season with the Spanish master.
Diame faces his former club Hull tomorrow and ahead of the game, has explained his reasons behind the switch from a Premier League season with The Tigers:
“When you have a chance to come to a club like Newcastle and a manager like Rafa Benitez wants you – then you have to accept.”
With the Newcastle public, press and players behind him, it is over to Rafa to guide the club into The EFL Cup Semi-Final stage and within a whisker of the Wembley Final and silverware that Rafa has been brought to the club to achieve – and nobody would bet against him doing it when it truly matters.