Rafa Benitez

PL Sunday preview: Unexpected battlers at the top, bottom

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Sunday’s slate of fixtures features a pair of relegation battlers as well as a pair of top-six chasers, only very few of the above happen to be who you thought they’d be at the start of the season…

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City, Spurs win while everyone else drops points ]

Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Everton — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Of the four sides set for action on Sunday, only Brighton have started the season as many predicted: in 16th after seven games, just two points clear of the relegation zone. Of the other three, Newcastle United would have been the next most likely to be faced with a relegation battle, but alas it’s Everton who head into Falmer Stadium 17th in the PL table, one spot and four goals worse off than the newly promoted Seagulls.

After spending $200 million in the summer, the Toffees were supposed to be the ones bidding to break up the top-six hierarchy — not Newcastle, as is actually the case.

“I accept that everyone is entitled to his opinion and as a coach I don’t run away from criticism,” Everton boss Ronald Koeman said this week. “We know within Everton that we currently play under our level and that the results should be better. The moment I made the move from Southampton to a club with such ambitions, I knew I could be in a difficult situation if investments were not accompanied by results. I’m pretty calm with it.”

As for Brighton, things are slowly but surely turning around. Having scored just five goals through seven games, four of the five have come in their last two home games — 3-1 and 1-0 victories over West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle, respectively. Brighton boss Chris Hughton, for one, isn’t panicking.

“We could have had slightly more than seven points but we’re a new team coming into this division and we’ve already played Arsenal and Man City,” he said this week. “There’s not a sense of satisfaction at this moment because when you have competitive players, you don’t like losing. But there’s more positives to come from the game than negatives.”

INJURIES: Brighton — OUT: Tomer Hemed (suspension), Steve Sidewell (back), Beram Kayal (leg), Sam Baldock (calf); QUESTIONABLE: Davy Propper (thigh) | Everton — OUT: Ross Barkley (hamstring), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), Seamus Coleman (leg), Yannick Bolasie (knee); RETURNING: James McCarthy (knee)

[ MORE: De Bruyne’s brilliance lauded | Klopp no fan of Mourinho’s style ]

Southampton vs. Newcastle United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

A win at St. Mary’s Stadium on Sunday could see Newcastle climb as high as fifth in the league table, depending on the margin of victory (a run-of-the-mill five-goal win would do the trick). Rafa Benitez‘s side is undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of the still-young season, having lost their first two games following a tumultuous summer of transfer dealings, only to rebound with three straight wins and points from four of the following five games.

As for their opponents, back-to-back losses to Manchester United and Stoke City leave Southampton chasing three points just to climb back into the top half of the table. While Newcastle will have been disappointed for the recent international break to arrive when it did (their 1-1 draw with Liverpool two weeks ago put everyone on notice), it couldn’t have come at a better time for Saints. These kind of early-season struggles are to be expected, though, according to midfielder James Ward-Prowse.

“This season we have a new manager, a new style of play and a few new signings as well, which have had a positive impact on the team,” he said this week. “It’s a building process still for us all, but it’s a positive one in the making. After this two weeks, it’s a great chance for us to hit the ground running and take the league by storm now.”

INJURIES: Southampton — PROBABLE: Shane Long (hip) | Newcastle — OUT: Paul Dummett (hamstring); PROBABLE: Jonjo Shelvey (finger), Matthew Ritchie (thigh), Christian Atsu (knee)

Benitez makes Merino loan a permanent deal for Newcastle

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
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Rafa Benitez knew he liked Mikel Merino when Newcastle United signed the dynamic midfielder on loan from Borussia Dortmund.

Did Rafa know the 21-year-old Spaniard would look like this big of a part of what Tynesiders call the “Rafalution?”

[ MORE: Top Premier League story lines ]

Probably not, but Newcastle has made Merino’s loan a permanent deal, signing him through 2022. After 14 minutes off the bench versus Spurs on Opening Day, Merino has played all but 16 minutes of the Premier League season.

Here’s Benitez, from NUFC.co.uk:

 “I’m really pleased we have been able to bring Mikel to the club permanently. He has played very well since he joined us. He has settled in quickly, has a lot of quality on the ball and is keen to learn – that is a crucial part of his future development.

Stuck behind Julian Weigl and Nuri Sahin at BVB, Merino is a young 21 (June) has shown his skill alongside and without Jonjo Shelvey. As a valuable part of a rotation that has kept Isaac Hayden out of the mix at times, Merino is a good sign that Benitez has aims to develop Newcastle despite some problems with owner Mike Ashley (who is said to be shopping the club).

Finally fit, Yedlin fills USMNT’s longtime void at right back

Photo credit: U.S. Soccer / @ussoccer

The right-back position has proven a crippling quandary for the U.S. national team ever since Steve Cherundolo’s international retirement in 2012. (Left back was — and remains — an issue long before then, but that’s a different story for a different day.)

[ MORE: 3rd? 4th? 5th? USMNT scenarios on the final day of WCQ ]

So many were asked to fill the career-long Hannover star’s boots — Eric Lichaj, Michael Orozco, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Fabian Johnson, Timothy Chandler and most recently Graham Zusi each played the position in significant stretches over the last five years — only to come up woefully short of Cherundolo’s lofty standard. The 2014 World Cup provided a perfect jumping-off point for the most promising prospect of the post-‘Dolo era: DeAndre Yedlin.

“Especially being so young and not really expecting to go [in 2014], it was a crazy feeling,” Yedlin said this week. “I can’t obviously thank Jurgen enough for putting his trust in me and bringing me into that, and that’s really what jump-started my career.”

[ MORE: Player ratings from USA 4-0 PanamaThree things we learned ]

Like those who came before him, even the dream of Yedlin becoming the instant answer fizzled out for a period before landing at Newcastle United last summer, at the age of 23, where he’d reclaim his form and fitness in the Championship. Following his failed move to Tottenham Hotspur the winter after Brazil, Yedlin spent most of the next two seasons unavailable due to injuries more often than not.

“I’ve had to grow up pretty quick, but I’m glad that I chose to make this step to kind of move away from what I’m comfortable from.”

[ MORE: Pulisic, Altidore feel “all the emotions” as WC dreams rescued ]

Now 24, and having been fit for much of the last 15 months, Yedlin is an integral piece of the Magpies’ puzzle, and returned to the USMNT in its most desperate time of need: needing wins in each of their final two 2018 World Cup qualifiers to assure their place at next summer’s tournament in Russia.

Friday night in Orlando, Fla., Yedlin reassumed the starting spot from Zusi and flourished, helping the Yanks to a vitally important 4-0 victory over Panama. He alone stood out as the star performer along a sometimes-shaky four-man backline, flashing the recovery speed and open-field marauding that earned him a move to the Premier League at the age of 21. According to Yedlin, much of what he brings to the team is an energy level that’s unmatched and confounds his teammates.

“Everybody tells me they don’t know how I have so much energy, and I think people feed off that, which is great.”

More importantly, playing under Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez has matured the mental side of Yedlin’s game immeasurably. His ability to recover serious real estate in the blink of an eye remains, but Friday’s performance was largely born out of a newfound ability to read the game around him.

“It’s a very physical league. It’s a league that if you lose focus for even a little bit of time, they can punish you,” Yedlin said. “Working with Rafa has taken my game to another level.”

That tactical growth, so perfectly exemplified by noticeable restraint and an understanding of when he can and can’t take risks, are precisely the signs that have USMNT fans counting on Yedlin to come better than good on his second trip to a World Cup.

Benitez hails “fantastic” draw, Newcastle and Liverpool fans

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Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez isn’t the sort of guy who’s going to gush after a home draw against a better side, but he came close following the Magpies’ 1-1 stalemate with his former club Liverpool on Sunday.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things from JPW ]

“When you get just one point at home we cannot be happy but against a top six like Liverpool, creating so many chances, you have to be a little bit happy,” Benitez said. “The way our players were working, tackling and trying to win every ball was fantastic.”

Okay, so clearly Benitez, a European champion, isn’t going to admit that his newly-promoted side should be fairly proud of its day on the home pitch.

As for his longtime love affair with Liverpool — Benitez even invited the leader of the Hillsborough inquest to be his guest of honor — the Spanish manager says he hopes to develop a similar vibe with the Tynesiders.

“Obviously my relationship with the Liverpool fans is very good. My relationship with Liverpool fans comes from years, here it is a fantastic relationship too and I am enjoying every minute.”

Despite losing at Huddersfield Town and Brighton, Newcastle has 10 points and three wins to start new life in the Premier League. Benitez has done it without the transfer backing he wanted this summer and Newcastle supporters will be hoping the rumored takeover bids are a reality to see what the “Rafalution” can become on Tyneside.

Newcastle United 1-1 Liverpool: Rafa frustrates former club

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Rafa Benitez took a point from his old pals Liverpool as the favorite Reds drew Newcastle United 1-1 on Sunday at St. James Park.

Liverpool rises seventh with 12 points, while Newcastle sits ninth with 10.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Rafa remembered his Liverpool roots, and there was certainly a pro-Benitez buzz from all four corners of the stadium ahead of the match.

Mohamed Salah led a lightning counter and sprung Sadio Mane on goal with a fantastic pass, but Magpies keeper Rob Elliot ended up rescuing the ball after several bobbles through the 18.

Ex-Liverpool man Jonjo Shelvey was back in Newcastle United’s lineup, and curled an early shot from outside the 18 into the arms of Simon Mignolet.

Shelvey cued Matt Ritchie up for a left-footed shot that wasn’t much of a problem for Mignolet.

The Reds grew into the game, and their fine attackers looked a cut above the Magpies back line (though Jamaal Lascelles stood tall at the back).

Liverpool’s mysterious finishing problems continued on a 23rd minute corner, with a post hit, a point-blank chance missed, and two more attempts off the mark.

But then, oh my, Coutinho. Given some room by Shelvey, Coutinho moved to his right and curled a near post shot past a flying Elliot and into the top corner.

Yet Newcastle leveled the score thanks to an outstanding through ball

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

A Ciaran Clark error gave Sturridge an amazing chance that Elliot saved, and Salah put the rebound well over the goal.

Liverpool dodged a bullet when Sadio Mane’s raking of a boot on Joselu went unheeded, and then another when Joe Gomez just saw yellow after clattering into Christian Atsu.

The Magpies had a decent series of chances around the hour mark, but couldn’t quite orchestrate a quality final shot.

Jurgen Klopp attacked the game by tossing on Dominic Solanke and Roberto Firmino, while Newcastle’s introduction of Isaac Hayden showed a desire to see out a point.

Still 1-1 in the 84th minute, Klopp injected Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The high-priced midfielder headed an Alberto Moreno cross over the frame in the 88th minute.

Dejan Lovren partially blocked a Mohamed Diame shot off a late corner.