Rafa Benítez spent three evenings watching televised transmissions of Champions League and Europa League quarter-finals this week but did not pine for the days when he was at the centre of the action.
“I’m enjoying things here now, we’re doing well and my team’s improving,” the Newcastle manager says. “You want to see your players growing, learning things and getting better. Sometimes that’s the best thing, the thing you most enjoy as a coach.”
Despite his enduring political battles with Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s idiosyncratic owner, the manager who won the Champions League with Liverpool, the Uefa Cup at Valencia and the Europa League with Chelsea still harbours hopes of leading the Tynesiders into European combat.
More immediately, Benítez is aiming for victory against Arsenal at St James’ Park on Sunday. Doing so would erase any lingering relegation fears by lifting his team to 41 points, but he would derive no extra pleasure from defeating Arsène Wenger.
The Spaniard has fallen out with some high-profile rivals – most notably Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho and Sam Allardyce – but has always liked and respected Wenger. “I have a good relationship with him,” he says. “I like the way Arsenal play and his behaviour. He’s someone who respects others, his approach has always been nice and positive. He gets upset, like everyone, when he loses or when he thinks something’s wrong, but, for me, there’s still a big difference between him and the others.”
After 22 years in north London it seems Wenger’s tenure is running out. “When you’re at a top side you know you have to win,” says Benítez. “Everyone’s expecting you to win the League or the Champions League. It’s not easy but, at a top side, you know it’s part of the job.”
Part of Benítez envies his achievement in remaining at Arsenal for so long. “I was thinking about staying at Liverpool for 20 years because everything was going well and I would have been happy, for sure,” he says. “But when the owners changed, everything changed.”
If his relationship with Liverpool will always be special, he has fallen more than a little in love with Newcastle. “You can see the similarities between the Liverpool fans and the Newcastle fans, between the cities,” he says. “When you have all these things in place and you’re winning, you want to stay forever.
“I need a project. A project’s nice. I like to work with young players, I like to improve them but I also like to win. I want to be competitive and I want to win. You need a mix of youth and experience. You have to sign some senior players to give confidence to the others and to make the difference. You have to spend some money.”
As he elaborated on his blueprint for success, the warning to Ashley contained in its subtext was crystal clear. Benítez is widely coveted and should the owner fail to finance his ambitions the former Real Madrid manager could depart Tyneside this summer. “You have to invest in your academy and your training facilities, do everything to improve the club,” he cautions. “You have to create a structure that will get you one player for the first-team squad from the academy every year.
“That’s the key if you want to save some money and with your local homegrown players have some heart and passion. But, ideally, you spend the money you save from not having to buy so many players on signing Europe’s top scorer. That’s a project.
“If your scouting department digs for diamonds and finds free transfers you can save a lot of money but you still need the £25m striker who can make the difference. That’s having a proper project.”