International

Benitez, Di Matteo begin road to EPL

2016-08-04 08:34
Rafael Benitez (TEAMtalk)

Cape Town - Rafael Benitez and Roberto Di Matteo have no regrets about swapping the gilded life of the European elite for the Championship's war of attrition as they prepare to slug it out in the race for promotion from England's second tier.

Just 12 months ago, Benitez was preparing Real Madrid for another assault on the major prizes, while Di Matteo was linked with several prestige jobs following his departure from German club Schalke.

It was impossible to forsee either Benitez, who led Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005, or Di Matteo, who won Europe's leading club competition as Chelsea boss in 2012, finding themselves amid the muck and nettles of the Championship.

Yet, on the eve of Newcastle's trip to Fulham for the opening match of the season on Friday, both managers are relishing the opportunity to restore two fallen giants to their former glory.

Newcastle, managed by Benitez, are favourites to win an immediate return to the Premier League in their first season in the second tier since 2010.

Aston Villa, coached by Di Matteo, are also expected to be among the promotion contenders as they face up to a first year out of the top-flight since 1987-88.

Escaping the Championship is a cut-throat affair, but Benitez is no naive newcomer to the predicament after leading Extremadura and Tenerife to promotion from the Spanish second division.

"It's important for us to be working hard and be organised but to play our style of football too," Benitez said.

"I think we are improving every game but still far away from what we have to be."

CIVIL WAR

The last time Newcastle were in the Championship they won the title with 102 points and a repeat could be on the cards judging by the unusually good vibes at a club so often destabilised by civil war.

Encouraged by Benitez's decision to rip up the relegation clause in his contract, Newcastle supporters have bought more season tickets than last season and the feelgood factor has been maintained by a spending spree of over £25 million on Matt Ritchie, Grant Hanley, Ciaran Clark and Dwight Gayle.

In contrast, by the time Villa were relegated last season, everyone at the club appeared sick of the sight of each other.

The fans were vocal in their criticism of an underachieving squad, some of whom didn't hide their disdain for the abuse, while then owner Randy Lerner was about to slash his asking price in a renewed bid to sell the troubled club.

When Chinese businessman Tony Xia completed a £75 million takeover in July, the gloom over Villa Park was partially lifted.

Now Di Matteo's task is to rebuild the fractured bond between team and supporters while ensuring they don't lose ground in the promotion race.

"The lion has been asleep for the last four or five years and we want to be sure with Roberto and his team that we wake the lion," Xia said.

However, ahead of their opener against Sheffield Wednesday, Di Matteo admitted his renovations were only just starting.

"It was a house that needed to be knocked down and start afresh. That's so far what I have seen," he said.

Like Villa, their local rivals Wolves are also under new Chinese ownership with an Italian in the dug-out.

Purchased by the Fosun International group for £45 million, Wolves harbour hopes of returning to the Premier League for the first time since 2012.

But the appointment of former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga, who has no experience of the English game and has managed 10 clubs in 10 years, looks a significant gamble.

FIXTURES

Friday, August 5

Fulham v Newcastle

Saturday, August 6

Birmingham v Cardiff
Blackburn v Norwich
Bristol City v Wigan
Derby v Brighton
Huddersfield v Brentford
Ipswich v Barnsley
Nottingham Forest v Burton
Reading v Preston
Rotherham v Wolves

Sunday, August 7

QPR v Leeds
Sheffield Wednesday v Aston Villa

Read more on:    newcastle united  |  championship  |  soccer
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