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Why would Rafael Benitez take over at Newcastle?

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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.

DC United acquires Julian Gressel from Atlanta

Atlanta United trades for Julian Gressel
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How much is Major League Soccer’s best assist man worth?

About $750,000.

DC United paid Atlanta United that fee in allocation money for the rights to Julian Gressel, who had been at a contract impasse with the club who drafted him in 2017.

That fee could hit $1.1 million in incentives, and even so could be a bargain.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Gressel was due to make around $133,000 this season and wanted an improved deal from Atlanta given his massive production since becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

That salary is less than hundreds of players, most of them nowhere near Gressel’s impact. Nineteen Atlanta United players made more than him last season, so it’s understandable that the 26-year-old wanted to get paid.

We don’t know what he was asking, or why Atlanta wouldn’t get there. From MLSSoccer.com:

“If we really wanted to, we could have had him play on $130,000 this season, extend him a bona fide offer at the end of the season and (we’d still own his MLS rights),” said Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra. “We’re also trying to do the right thing for a guy who has given so much to the club and is really just a good kid all around.”

It’s a weird one, given what the club’s been paying others.

Gressel arrived at Providence College from Eintracht Bamberg and immediately started delivering for the Big East side. He finished his four years with 30 goals and 26 assists and All-American status.

There was some adapting to MLS, but he’s gotten better with every season. He scored 10 goals with 13 assists in all competitions last season.

Spurs chairman reportedly met with Real Madrid about Gareth Bale

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As a neutral, the idea of Gareth Bale rejoining Tottenham Hotspur would be a delight to our Premier League matchday viewing.

Obviously this applies to Spurs fans to the nth degree, especially after a dull 0-0 with Watford at the weekend.

In the short-term, Bale would be a terrific stopgap as Spurs struggle to find themselves without Harry Kane in both the PL and Champions League.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

In the long-term, Bale and Heung-Min Son on the wings of Harry Kane would be enough to make any PL power trio blush (unless Liverpool really does add Timo Werner).

A report out of Spain says Real Madrid president Florentino Perez met with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy about several things including the availability of Bale.

The Welsh star has been long admired by Jose Mourinho, and of course knows Spurs well having become a superstar after arriving from Southampton.

Bale is 30 and his wages would easily top Spurs’ pay list. His 21 goals and nine assists in the 2012/13 Premier League season join his 19 and 11 in 2015 La Liga as his top league seasons.

Spurs host Norwich City on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Guardiola praises Laporte, “the best left central defender in the world”

Pep Guardiola praises Aymeric Laporte
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Manchester City kept its first clean sheet of 2020 on Tuesday, posting a 1-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

It took the two-time reigning Premier League champions six tries to get there, the previous zero coming against this same Blades side at the Etihad Stadium.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to give credit to a returning hero, as center back Aymeric Laporte returned to the fold for the first time since Aug. 31.

The club was 3W-1D at that point. They went 12W-2D-5L without him.

Here’s Guardiola, from the Manchester Evening News:

“It’s incredible,” Guardola said. “We have missed him a lot, he’s the best left central defender in the world. Imagine the best teams in the world lose their best central defender. We miss him a lot because he’s a specialist left foot where our buildup. He is fast, strong in the air.”

“He has something that we don’t have in the squad. His left foot and many actions to build up to make it quicker and better – we don’t have it, not because the other ones are not good but he has the only left foot as a central defender and for the way we want to play that is so important. His character and mentality and winning, he has all the attributes. For me, when he is fit he is the best left central defender in the world.”

If you read that as a little bit of an explanation for City being 13 points off Liverpool, you’ve similar eyes to us.

Pep is asking how Liverpool would look without Virgil Van Dijk, how Real Madrid appears when Sergio Ramos is out.

It’s not the be-all, end-all, but as I wrote when Laporte went down, this is the key piece to their defending efforts as well as where they begin possession.

We’re also grateful that Guardiola didn’t drop some sort of, “He’s like a January transfer addition,” statement (at least as far as we’ve read.

Chelsea admit they miss USMNT’s Pulisic

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LONDON — Since USMNT star Christian Pulisic was injured in training in the first week of January, Chelsea have lost against Newcastle, drawn with Arsenal and blown away Burnley.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]  

In the two games where they’ve dropped points they’ve missed Pulisic’s genius in the final third with both Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi easily shackled by Arsenal in their London derby. Chelsea admitted as much when speaking after the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Tuesday, an Arsenal side who played with 10 men for over 60 minutes of the game.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about Pulisic’s adductor injury and if they missed him during the draw against Arsenal, downbeat Chelsea boss Frank Lampard noted that Pulisic, 21, was “playing really well” before his injury.

“Yeah, a game like today could have been a good where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

When will Pulisic be back?

Lampard confirmed he is making good progress but will not be fit until after the mid-season player break in February, which means he will miss their FA Cup trip to Hull City this Saturday and their clash at Leicester City on Feb. 1. He may not be back until Feb. 17 when they host Manchester United in the Premier League, which means in total he will have been out for a period of six weeks.

“In terms of when he’s back, it is not going to be a week, it is probably be the other end of the early February break but he is getting better and he isn’t far away,” Lampard said.

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk pitch-side at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who scored their late second goal which looked like being the winner, lavished praise on Pulisic when asked about his absence over the last week.

“Christian is a magnificent player. Since he joined us in the summer he has shown us his potential and we know that he can make the difference at any time. Whenever a player is injured it is not good for a team because we lose potential and I hope to have him back soon,” Azpilicueta said.

Chelsea’s skipper is expecting big things from Pulisic when he does return to fitness, as the fourth-place Blues now have just a six-point cushion to those outside of the top four and have played a game more.

It seems like everyone at Chelsea hopes the USMNT star can rejuvenate their attack in the final months of the season.

“After coming to Europe as a young boy to Germany, he came to Chelsea and it is one step forward, playing for Chelsea every game, fighting to win and fighting for trophies,” Azpilicueta said. “In my role I’ve tried to help in settle into the city and the club. He has a brilliant attitude. Always trying to improve. I am sure he will become bigger and bigger.”