Keeping Newcastle in the league could be Benitez's greatest feat

Accompanied by a soundtrack of AC Milan celebrations from the other dressing room, Rafa Benitez calmly addressed a 3-0 half-time deficit. He told Djimi Traore to get into the shower, but had to reassess when Steve Finnan's injury was discovered. In an instant, Traore was staying on, Finnan was replaced by Dietmar Hamann, and the formation changed to a 3-5-2. Around two hours later, Liverpool claimed the 2004-05 Champions League title.

Rafa Benitez's curriculum vitae is rife with impressive achievements and that, undoubtedly, is his most historic. What's developing on Tyneside, however, could be his greatest accomplishment of all.

Presently, rather than that night in Istanbul, things are much closer to Benitez's disastrous mid-1990s Osasuna spell at Newcastle United. His team is, quite frankly, poor. Karl Darlow was dropped to the bench for Manchester United's visit on Sunday, but was lucky to be a Premier League goalkeeper in the first place. Paul Dummett is an incredibly limited full-back, and the club's longest-serving player. Joselu, a lightweight forward who couldn't get minutes at Stoke City, is the team's top scorer in the league with four.

The resources are thin, especially for a manager of Benitez's repute. The former handler of Cristiano Ronaldo, Samuel Eto'o, Eden Hazard, and many other global stars now asks DeAndre Yedlin to keep Alexis Sanchez quiet.

Except it worked. A spirited 1-0 victory was taken from Benitez's old foe Jose Mourinho this weekend, dragging Newcastle from the relegation zone and into 13th place. The battle to avoid the drop is tight - 18th-placed Southampton is only five points adrift of Bournemouth in 10th - but a win that saw an underperforming Paul Pogba embarrassingly withdrawn, Sanchez plagued with indecision after rounding debutant goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, and Mourinho taking the rare step of congratulating his opponent (albeit backhandedly) brings belief.

And not only is Benitez dealing with an under-funded squad, he's also trying to build a side with no support from the boardroom. Newcastle's owner Mike Ashley is, as the Guardian's David Conn describes, "at a great football club he seems, bewilderingly, to derive little pleasure from owning." The Magpies chief has been trying to sell the club for some time, and his most recent declaration that Newcastle was available in October followed a concession that he couldn't compete with the riches of Manchester City and United.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Nobody was asking for that. Just to approach the season with greater competitiveness would be appreciated. No money was spent in the January transfer window despite the club's perilous standing, and a takeover from Amanda Staveley - who, it transpires, doesn't have the money required to purchase Newcastle, despite her interest suspiciously being all over the papers - unsurprisingly collapsed.

Due to indifference, fan vitriol, or both, Ashley doesn't really attend matches nowadays. He's still an absent presence. Ringed by advertisements for Ashley's Sports Direct empire, Benitez is forced to pick up the pieces at St James' Park and try to avoid a third relegation under the self-serving businessman's watch. In hindsight, working for Real Madrid president Florentino Perez must seem like a doddle.

Benitez is coping admirably with the predicament at Newcastle. Spurred on by the fantastic support across the football-mad city, he is wringing out everything from his players and riding luck when cracks form in his side's defensive armour. But it's not all backs-to-the-wall stuff from Benitez; he fielded two recognised forwards against Manchester United for the second time this season, and also allowed match-winner Matt Ritchie and Kenedy to gird attacks. Jonjo Shelvey, a fantastic talent when he's in the mood or permitted too much space, was Benitez's best outfield player.

"Each and every person in that dressing room deserved that three points today," Shelvey reflected after Sunday's victory of Manchester United.

"It's going to give us that confidence. We've not got a game next week, so we can have a rest and keep working on the training pitch. That's one thing with the gaffer here - he'll always keep drilling us and never let us get ahead of ourselves. We just have to back that performance up with one at Bournemouth now."

Other managers would have grown despondent at the lack of backing from the boardroom, just as Antonio Conte is at Chelsea. However, Benitez has embraced the them-against-us mentality in Newcastle, giving the team a glimpse of preserving its top-flight status. It may lack the gloss of two titles in La Liga with Valencia, or one of the most famous nights in Liverpool's history, but achieving so much from so little is the clearest demonstration of a manager's gifts. To keep Newcastle up would be a phenomenal, and possibly his best, achievement.

Keeping Newcastle in the league could be Benitez's greatest feat
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