Newcastle United: Rafa Benitez has work to do ahead of the club's Premier League return
On a sunny May 15, 2016, an already relegated Newcastle United thrashed league runners-up Tottenham Hotspur on the final day of the season in a 5-1 victory that was to be a turning point for the future of the North East club.
It was a victory that convinced Rafa Benitez to stay on as manager of the Tyneside outfit, following a rousing heartfelt tribute from a packed St. James' Park.
Fast-forward a year and after a grueling 46 games in the Championship, Newcastle are back in the Premier League, emerging from the second tier as champions, just.
As the Spaniard approaches his first season managing in the top-flight since his controversial spell at Chelsea in 2012, there is unanimous agreement amongst NUFC fans that Benitez is the man to lead this club forward, a first, since the days of Chris Hughton as headcoach. Finally, the Magpies have an experienced, successful, levelheaded manager on the sideline. No more washed-up, has-beens with a phony smile - just a proper football manager without the BS.
There has been nothing but positive noises emerging from the club since Benitez assumed full control, but even he will know that the real test awaits with less than two months to go until the Premier League kicks off, for which Newcastle can be backed at 11/4 on the Sportsbook to record a Top 10 Finish, and at 5.69/2 in the Relegation market. There are problems to fix, before a ball has even been kicked.
Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark may have combined throughout last season to ensure a fairly rock-solid defensive pairing, but there are growing doubts over the readiness of the club's captain for regular Premier League football. Clark, too, has hardly caught the eye during his ill-fated spells at Aston Villa over the years. There will be movement in this department, and you can be sure that Benitez will look to sign a new starting centre back.
Early indications suggest SD Eibar defender Florian Lejuene will sign the dotted line on Tyneside in the coming week, an ex-Manchester City squad member, and most notably the 2015/16 La Liga Defender of the Year. Benitez will likely try mold a complimentary partnership at the heart of the defence - don't be surprised if Clark and Lejune are Benitez's first experiment on the opening day of the season.
Composure In Centre Midfield
Jonjo Shelvey and Isaac Hayden contributed credibly to Newcastle's title-winning season, however there is a strong argument that this area can be, and will be strengthened by the time the transfer window closes. Shelvey, with undoubted creative ability, will be tasked with providing the creativity in the forthcoming season, but he is by no means guaranteed a starting role week-in week-out. Hayden will take on the responsibility of sitting a little deeper and keep things ticking over, while it looks like it might the end of the road for local lad Jack Colback.
There has also been talk of Fabian Delph making a move further North, and it is easy to see why. A naturally left-footed player with the ability to both hold fort and venture forward- he'd improve Newcastle's midfield immeasurably.
Dwight Gayle - A Peculiar Case
Having netted 23 goals in his first season at the club to help the promotion cause, Dwight Gayle may be forgiven for assuming that he will lead the line for Newcastle United throughout the upcoming Premier League campaign. However, there is a sense on Tyneside that another forward will arrive before the first game of the season, and possibly one to dislodge the 26-year-old Englishman of his starting role. Aleksandar Mitrovic on the other hand is expected to depart, with Benitez unlikely to ever rely on the Serbian as his first choice forward.
Gayle's situation, however, is unusual for a club #9, but there is that nagging feeling that he isn't someone you can trust to deliver the goods in the top flight, and Benitez is the type of manager that avoids leaving things to chance. Expect a new forward at the Toon soon.
Nevertheless, the real graft has already begun for Rafa and everyone involved at the club, and there is a palpable sense of excitement amongst supporters that maybe, just maybe Newcastle United have a manager that can bring the club onto the next level.
You can follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDoocey, and visit his NUFC Blog, Tyne Time.