Why would Rafael Benitez take over at Newcastle?

AP
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With Steve McClaren fired by Newcastle United on Friday, former Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez has replaced him.

One of the biggest questions about Benitez coming in is: why?

[ MORE: McClaren fired by Newcastle ]

Benitez, 55, was fired by Real Madrid in January but his pedigree of managing some of the top teams in the world is remarkable. Quite why he is ready to risk his managerial reputation and dive head first into a relegation battle is perplexing, but he’s doing it.

The Spanish coach arrived on Friday and after days of negotiations, he will officially replace McClaren. The biggest change here is that he was named as the new “manager” and not “head coach” as a huge reshuffle in how the club is run is expected.

Benitez has signed a three-year deal — his first game in charge could be against Leicester City (Watch live, 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) next Monday — and if he fails to keep Newcastle in the Premier League he has a break clause to walk away.

That reported deal is worth $6 million a year, so there’s a big reason why Benitez could be willing to take this gamble. Money talks. But so does the opportunity to resurrect a giant.

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Benitez hasn’t been in a relegation battle before, but he has built something up from the bottom as he led Valencia to two La Liga titles and UEFA Cup success during his time at the Mestalla. Newcastle is a very similar size club to Valencia and if Benitez can save them this season, there’s the potential to push them back to the top 10 of the PL. But only the potential.

Plenty has to change from owner Mike Ashley downwards for that to come to fruition, but having a coach who has won the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool and has vast experience in the top flights of Spain, Italy and England should be enough for Newcastle’s notoriously hands on directors to hand over the reins to Benitez and his talented backroom staff. Remember, Newcastle were title contenders in the PL not too long ago. They are a huge club with a huge fanbase, but something has been rotten for a long-time and Benitez may soon find out he’s bitten off more than he can chew as the expectant fans heap huge pressure on the players and the coach.

[ MORE: Latest PL standings

The Magpies currently sit in 19th place and have 24 points from their opening 28 games of the season, but sit just one point from safety with North East rivals Sunderland, plus Norwich City also in the battle against the drop. It seems almost certain that two of those three teams will join Aston Villa (all but doomed) in the Championship next season, but Newcastle do play Sunderland, Norwich, Swansea and Villa in their remaining 10 games so there’s plenty of points to pick up against relegation rivals.

So, what does Benitez have to work with?

Players like Daryl Janmaat, Jonjo Shelvey and Georginio Wijnaldum have all shown glimpses of their star quality, but they need help. Especially in defense. Benitez is know for providing stability and setting his teams up to defend, so he has to improve Newcastle’s defensive frailties (they’ve conceded 53 goals this season, the third-most in the PL) if they’re going to have any chance of staying up.

McClaren couldn’t get the most out of these talented players and they are under-performing massively. Newcastle spent the fourth-highest amount among PL clubs on new players this season, with $115 million dished out. Benitez’s aim is to now get the best out of what he has between now and May 15 and then, hopefully, he can rebuild the squad. At least it seems like there is now money to spend at Newcastle, but Benitez must spend it wisely if he gets the chance and he’ll certainly have a queue of players who have always been loyal to him who will want to join him once again in England.

Behind-the-scenes, long-term, Benitez will have to make big changes as the Ashley regime has several long-standing members who have largely flown under the radar but have a huge say in transfers and the soccer philosophy with chief scout Graham Carr, director Bobby Moncur and managing director Paul Charnley all seeming to have too much influence on what happens on the pitch. Benitez will want to change that and

Since the Premier League was founded eight teams have changed their manager in March, April or May and all eight have been relegated.

Benitez has a huge challenge on his hands, but if he can save a sleeping giant of English soccer this season maybe, and it’s a big maybe, he can help stir them from their lengthy slumber and finally fulfill their potential.