Rafa Benitez was overseeing preseason training sessions involving Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos this time last year, preparing Real Madrid for a shot at the Champions League and an annual La Liga title fight with Barcelona.
Things are very different for the Spanish coach 12 months on.
Benitez finds himself in the second tier of English soccer, one day away from starting his bid to guide Newcastle back into the Premier League. He is perhaps the most high-profile manager to coach in the League Championship, with trips ahead to the likes of Huddersfield, Rotherham and Barnsley.
Benitez didn’t have to be in this position. After failing to keep Newcastle in the top flight in a 10-game stint as manager at the end of last season, he could have exercised a break clause in his contract and looked for another job. He surely would have found one, given his impressive resume that includes Champions League (Liverpool), Europa League (Chelsea) and Spanish league (Valencia) titles as well as spells with six leading European clubs.
Yet, Benitez liked the passion of Newcastle’s fans. He was impressed by the size of the club with its 52,000-seater St. James’ Park stadium that dominates the northern city, and content with the control and financial backing he was promised from the board. So he agreed to a new three-year deal in May in a huge, surprise coup for Newcastle.
And after an offseason of squad reshuffling and seemingly astute purchases, Newcastle starts the season against Fulham on Friday as the odds-on favorite with British bookmakers for promotion.
“After the last two months of last season, I knew the team, knew the players. And I knew we had to change something to create a positive atmosphere,” Benitez said Thursday. “We know it’s very difficult, the Championship, and every game will be complicated but now we have the hope we can do well, the belief we can do well. That is the main thing at the beginning.”
Among the eight players brought in by Benitez are midfielders Mo Diame and Matt Ritchie, striker Dwight Gayle and defender Ciaran Clark. They have a mixture of Premier League know-how and experience of playing in – and getting out of – the grueling League Championship.
“In terms of the mentality of the team, it has changed a lot,” said Benitez.
Benitez isn’t the only Champions League-winning manager coaching at this level this season. Roberto Di Matteo, who won European club soccer’s biggest prize with Chelsea in 2012, was hired by Aston Villa in the offseason and takes over a side playing out of the top division for the first time since 1988.
Villa was the European champion in 1982. Nottingham Forest, the European Cup winner in 1979 and ’80, is also in the Championship. Blackburn and Leeds, English champions in the 1990s, are in the division, too.
There are big names throughout the second tier but Newcastle will be the team to beat.
“Newcastle, everybody knows, is a Premier League team – a big name, a massive club,” said Diame, who dropped down a division from Hull to sign for Newcastle. “We’ll be back in the Premier League, I’m sure.”