Rafa Benitez

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Newcastle linked with targets as Benitez begins transfer quest

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Newcastle United’s players have canceled their Christmas party, as manager Rafa Benitez admits he’s working on January gifts for the St. James’ Park set.

The Magpies have one point from their last eight matches, and face Arsenal, West Ham, and Manchester City in the run-up to the New Year, closing off a run of five matches in 16 days with Brighton and Stoke.

[ PL PREVIEW: Man City vs. Spurs ]

Benitez says he’s begun talks with managing director Lee Charnley about the January window. The team is expected to make moves whether Mike Ashley completes a reported sale of the team or not. From Sky Sports:

“At this time it is just to talk about ideas,” he said. “You might say ‘I would like to sign this player’ and someone will say ‘£40m’ – maybe it is not realistic.

“The main thing, we had this conversation, then we have to move forward quickly. I don’t know the details but at least we were talking about that. We have to progress and it is so obvious that we have to improve things.”

Newcastle has been linked with a number of notable names a few weeks from the start of the January market, including Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, prolific Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun, as well as Liverpool’s Danny Ings and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw.

Report: Newcastle sale closer after improved bid of $400 million

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The Geordie dream appears one giant step closer to reality after Amanda Staveley has reportedly made a significantly larger bid in her attempt to purchase Newcastle United from long-embattled owner Mike Ashley.

[ TIMELINE: Ashley puts club up for sale | Staveley’s first bid rejected ]

According to multiple reports out of the UK — the Telegraph offers the most information at this time — Staveley has increased her initial offer from $335 million to today’s $400-million figure which is expected to be enough to convince Ashley to accept and bring to an end his decade-long, rocky relationship with the Toon Army.

Ashley purchased the club for $177 million back in 2007 and has reportedly invested somewhere in the neighborhood of another $177 million, in the form of interest-free loans, during his stewardship. He stands to make a sizable profit in light of today’s reports, though his original asking price of $534 million is nowhere close to being met.

[ STREAM: Newcastle host Everton — Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET ]

The biggest question which remains — now that will he or won’t he sell? appears to have been answered — is how quickly the deal can be completed, thus allowing Staveley to back manager Rafa Benitez during the January transfer window. Once the two sides enter into deeper takeover talks and the process of transferring ownership from one to the other begins, a transfer embargo will be activated.

Benitez and Ashley traded verbal jabs over the club’s transfer dealings — or, lack thereof — in the summer, and the Spaniard has again this week insisted significant investment is needed in January, otherwise the Magpies could very well be relegated, once again. After a strong start to the season, Newcastle are winless in their last seven Premier League games (six losses) and have tumbled to 16th in the league table, now just two points clear of the relegation zone.

Benitez: If we can’t add in January, work gets harder

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Newcastle United has swung from the top half of the table to the fringes of the drop zone, something that hasn’t caught Rafa Benitez off guard.

The veteran manager has not lost sight of his August transfer window shortcomings. He hasn’t dwelled on it in the media, but Benitez is also very cognizant that his team has lacked depth at striker, out wide, and at left back.

[ MORE: Pep on post-derby celebrations ]

To boot, most of his additions — Mikel Merino, Christian Atsu, Javi Manquillo — haven’t been loaded with experience.

“Some games we are the youngest team in the Premier League. We have to learn quickly. This team is working very hard. Little things we have to improve and we will be stronger.”

“We know our job. Everyone has an opinion. It’s not rocket science – we need players in some positions. If we can, fine, if not, we will have to work harder.”

Newcastle isn’t far away, but it’s woefully short at left back (to the point where it’s best options have been displaced center back Chancel Mbemba and right back Manquillo), and Benitez doesn’t trust Aleksandar Mitrovic up top with Joselu not firing (though Championship star scorer Dwight Gayle may be coming around).

Additions are still needed, and perhaps Benitez is marginally better off that Newcastle didn’t continue overachieving as it did early days.

Premier League preview: Newcastle vs. Leicester City

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  • Newcastle United welcome back Jamaal Lascelles and Christian Atsu and has a clean bill of health.
  • Leicester City has no new injury concerns with Matty James (Achilles) and Robert Huth (ankle) the only absentees.
  • Newcastle United have lost only two of their last 17 home league meetings with Leicester City, although the Foxes won on their last visit to St James’ Park in November 2015.
  • Jamie Vardy is one away from becoming the first Leicester City player to hit 50 Premier League goals.
  • Shinji Okazaki scored in both fixtures the last time these sides met in 2015/16, making Newcastle the only team he’s scored in more than one match against in the Premier League.

Newcastle has lost five of its last six games, but they return home to try and turn things around with Leicester City coming to St. James Park on Saturday evening. (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Rafa Benitez has plenty of big-game experience – usually in UEFA Champions League matches – but now his Newcastle side is in a relegation battle and needs a big performance to create some space between the side and the drop zone.

Leicester City meanwhile has won two games on the bounce and has lost just one game in its last nine fixtures, showing good form with Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Damarei Gray showing their talent on a week-by-week basis.

What they’re saying

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez on his team’s recent results: “We have to improve as a team to be sure we can compete against some of the top sides. The teams at the top at the moment, we are a little bit far away, but still we could do something against Liverpool, for example. I think it is important that the next two games at home, if we can compete, we can win. If we cannot compete – like happened in the second half against Manchester United or Chelsea – we cannot win. As I have said before, we have to maximize what we have, and what we have is fantastic fans behind the team, at home and away. So, they have to show again that they support the team because these are the players we have.”

Leicester City manager Claude Puel on his side’s performance since joining the club: “I don’t know if I expected this but the most important thing is to continue this work and to keep building momentum and confidence. It is important to get results for confidence and to try and improve all the time. Time will tell. For me it is about keeping a good focus and concentration on the next game and to try and play a strong game.”

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Prediction: Newcastle will come out with plenty of energy and spirit, but defensive frailties, even with the return of Jamal Lascelles will cause them to lose as the quality of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez take over. Leicester City 2-1 Newcastle

Benitez lays out safety path for struggling Newcastle

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Newcastle United has lost four-straight Premier League matches, but manager Rafa Benitez says the club is not far off from its goals.

The Magpies were belted by Watford on Saturday, the latest in a string of losses started by Burnley, Bournemouth, and Manchester United.

Two of those were at home, and the Toon Army is less than enthused with a club which seemed ahead of its projections during a nice run earlier in the season.

[ MORE: Magpies walloped by Watford ]

Not-so-fast, says Rafa, who was not allowed to meet the wages or transfer fees of many of his required targets this summer. The goal is 20 points in the first 19 matches, and 20 in the second.

Newcastle has 14, and needs six points from its next six matches to meet Rafa’s pace. The Magpies play West Brom on Tuesday before meeting Chelsea, Leicester, West Ham, Everton, and Arsenal.

That puts a big circle on the Hawthorns trip:

“You can lose against the top teams but we have to compete against Huddersfield, against Brighton or against Burnley but we couldn’t sign players that they signed. We couldn’t pay the wages that they paid, so that is what we have.”

Benitez has riffed on the “know who we are” underdog/siege mentality since the summer, and perhaps before it. Top-end talent is at a minimum around St. James Park, and the strength lies in its center back corps when healthy.

Joselu and Aleksandar Mitrovic couldn’t finish their chances in the loss to Watford, and Benitez didn’t exactly endorse the former when asked about the side’s weak strike production. Newcastle bought Joselu from Stoke for under $7 million (£5) this summer.

“Our reality is if you want to buy a striker that scores 20 goals every year you have to pay now £40m,” said Benitez.

“An average striker is £15, £20, £25m, if he kicks the ball forward it’s £15m – if he scores it’s £25m. We didn’t do that, we didn’t do that and that’s it. We need to know who we are and where we are.”

Rafa’s a savvy actor, and knows this puts pressure on owner Mike Ashley when it comes to takeover bids. Stories in the media say Benitez would be backed big in January by new ownership, and fans very much want Ashley out of the picture. The London businessman, however, is anything but easily swayed and has a stubborn streak. Will this help?