Assuming that Mike Ashley does not sell over the next month….
We are in for a difficult few months as another struggle for Premier League survival ensues, with the ongoing ownership issue eating away in the background.
I have no doubt though that Rafa Benitez will at the very minimum see out his contract until the end of the 2018/19 season.
Here are three areas though which are key to getting the most out of the remainder of this campaign.
A (relatively) good cup run
I am not saying I expect or demand 2019 to be the year we end the trophy drought and win the FA Cup. I do think though that we should be able to harbour a little more ambition than a third round exit.
Although once again the scheduling of the FA Cup on the back of a hectic festive premier league period is not great timing for most of the top flight clubs, let alone ones facing a scrap in the second half of the season.
The draw this year though does open up minor possibilities. Blackburn at home looked a winnable tie even with a rotated squad, and although it brought a hugely disappointing performance, at least we are in the hat and can see what the potential reward is. If we can get past Rovers at Ewood we are drawn at home to Watford who were defeated back in November, plus NUFC had the better of them last month away from home. So at least a chance of a first fifth round tie since 2006 is a possibility.
If nothing else this would represent minor progress in a competition of huge importance to the fans, if not to the owner. Playing a strong enough team to win a couple of ties, could be seen as a chance for Rafa to diplomatically stick two fingers up at the current owner and show what might be possible at United. The cup always matters, even when you are battling the drop, many could do well to remember that round here.
Turn St James Park into a fortress
You could point at a number of reasons as to why our form on the road has been slightly better than our home form in the first half of the season.
Some will point towards the pressure and expectancy surrounding home games causing a subdued atmosphere.
To m,e the team looks far more comfortable tactically, when absorbing pressure and trying to hit teams on the break away from home.
At home, the games in which we are expected to take the initiative, have produced the worst performances (with the exception of the Bournemouth game where we played really well).
Rafa knows he will need to find a way to edge out those tight games at home against the sides around us, as they can often define the season and keep fan support high. The results against Leicester City and West Ham in particular were low points so far this season.
It was the excellent results at SJP post-January last season that saved our skin. It was a hope that once again the visit of Manchester United at home would be a turning point but that fell flat. We need a big home win which will hopefully turn the tide.
Bring in two new signings
We all know the policy of transfer spending from the club in previous years and can probably deduce this will be the hardest of targets for Rafa to push through over the remainder of this month.
It could be the difference once again between getting to the magic 40 points, or not.
In the January transfer window of our last relegation season (2016) we needed a striker and brought in Seydou Doumbia on loan.
Last season we had an exceptional window bringing in Dubravka, Kennedy and Slimani who all contributed to ensure a relatively comfortable survival.
The form of our Brazilian winger this season has been far more inconsistent, leading to rumours the loan could be terminated early. If nothing else this highlights how dramatically a player’s stock can drop in such a short space of time. With his form deteriorating combined with the reasonable success of Benitez’s 3-5-1-1 formation, a new left wing-back will be a priority.
While Salamon Rondon has led the line remarkably well since getting himself fit, another centre-forward could be handy, particularly if Rafa continues to rotate. As we saw with Joselu’s recent performance at Liverpool, the team appear far too reliant on Rondon and Perez for goals at the moment (also if Jonjo Shelvey could start chipping in with goals, now would be the time). Another striker would not only ease the workload on Rondon, but also give us another option when trying to get that crucial first goal at SJP. Something we have struggled with in the first half of the season.
I don’t agree with much of the stick Joselu takes off the crowd, many forget some of the stinking attitudes we have had to deal with in the last 15 years alone. Joselu at least tries his best and puts many of them to shame. However, a striker who never looks like scoring is hardly going to be a fan favourite at SJP.
Time for another poacher to nick those crucial points at home. Hopefully Rafa gets something in the form of signings. We are down to such bare bones at present that, anything is better than nothing unfortunately.
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