With Newcastle United no longer having any real stand out players that other clubs are desperate to have, the January transfer window, just like the previous two, was almost solely about which players Newcastle could potentially buy, rather than sell.
The exception was Mikel Merino, with late on in the transfer window, claims that Athletic Bilbao could be set to sign him and the player was allegedly up for a move.
Rafa Benitez has now commented on the potential move that didn’t happen.
Basically the Newcastle boss has rubbished the story, saying that Mikel Merino was happy at Newcastle at the start of January and was equally happy at the club when the window closed.
Rafa says that the only issues surrounding the midfielder are regarding when he will regain 100% match fitness, Benitez stating ‘That is it’, which repeats what the player himself said only two weeks ago (read below).
Mikel Merino picked up a back injury in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool on 1 October and the club tried to manage the problem by restricting the player to short playing spells coming off the bench.
However, after scoring the winner as a late sub v Crystal Palace on 21 October, Rafa and the club’s medical team accepted that rest and light training was the only way to get Merino back to being 100%.
Merino came back and played a handful of games in December but then has once again being looked after through January as they try to carefully get the Spanish Under 21 player back to his best, his only league start in the last five weeks being the 1-1 draw against Burnley on…transfer deadline day.
After playing so well earlier in the season, bizarrely some Newcastle fans are finding it difficult to accept that as the player tries to shake off his back problem, he isn’t quite back at that level as yet.
Far better the Rafa approach of looking after injured/recovering players and hopefully we will have Merino back at 100% for this relegation run-in, rather than keep playing him as Pardew would have done, then risk longer-term problems.
It is also easy to forget, with the midfielder bought in, that he is still only 21, younger than the likes of Rolando Aarons and Kenedy.
Merino has done well at such a young age and stepping up to top flight football in a new country, he is sure to massively improve with experience and with the right players around him with surely progress rapidly, if Rafa Benitez is allowed to buy them this summer.
As for signing on at Athletic Bilbao, it is something we will have to get used to, just like every six months being told that Andy Carroll is coming back to Tyneside. With Bilbao only signing players born in the Basque region, or meeting other Basque-related criteria, Mikel Merino is sure to be linked with them as one of the highest profile and promising Basque players who they don’t have on their books already.
Rafa Benitez asked if Mikel Merino is happy after claims in January that a move to Athletic Bilbao was going to happen:
“Yes, that (Merino is happy at Newcastle) was clear at the beginning (and end of the transfer window).
“It is just a case of getting back to his perfect match fitness.
“That is it.
“It has taken some time.
“Now he must recover the match fitness by training and playing games.”
The Mag – 23 January 2018:
“I have had a lot of injuries during my career but…the back is the worst one I think, because it affects a lot.
“You can’t turn, you can’t sprint, you can’t jump.
“Sometimes it is hard to play with these kind of injuries because you feel like you can do 100% but you are doing 50% and nobody knows it.
“It is hard but you have to carry on – a lot of players are playing with injuries and it’s part of the sport, so I deal with it.”
“The back injury which I still have a little bit is improving and I feel much better.
“I am almost at 100% physically and feeling good in training – I feel that I’m at a good level.
“I hope that in a few weeks I don’t have any problems and I will be 100%.
“Manager, team-mates and staff are always trying to help me, giving advice and encouragement.”