NEWCASTLE, England — Rafa Benitez started this season tasked with winning the Champions League with Real Madrid. He will end it trying to keep Newcastle in the English Premier League.
The Spaniard replaced Steve McClaren as manager on Friday, signing a three-year deal with the club that is 19th in the 20-team standings but only a point from safety.
"I have the pleasure to confirm I have committed to a legendary English club, with the massive challenge of remaining part of the Premier League," said the former Liverpool manager, before taking the first training session with his new players.
"Personally, it means my return to the Premier League, closer to my home and my family. I can’t be happier."
Benitez was dismissed as coach of Madrid in January, winning 17 of his 25 matches with the team.
His first game in charge of Newcastle will be against surprise Premier League leader Leicester on Monday, before facing 17th-place Sunderland the following Sunday in a relegation fight.
North-east rival Sunderland is led by Sam Allardyce, who has an ongoing feud with Benitez from 2009.
Allardyce, then at Blackburn, interpreted Benitez’s signal of crossing and opening his arms to mean "game over" when Liverpool took a 2-0 lead after 33 minutes in a league game which it eventually won 4-0. Benitez denied he had meant this.
The 55-year-old Benitez has plenty of Premier League experience, having managed Liverpool for six years — winning the Champions League in 2005 — and a six month spell as interim boss at Chelsea in 2011-12.
He has also taken charge of Valencia, Inter Milan and Napoli.
McClaren was fired earlier Friday after only nine months in the role, following nine losses in 12 games.
"We feel that a change is now needed in order to give the club the best possible chance of securing its Premier League future," managing director Lee Charnley said in a statement.
McClaren was hired by Newcastle on a three-year deal during the last off-season and also given a place on the club’s board.
Newcastle spent a reported 80 million pounds ($115 million) over the last two transfer windows — no other European club spent more — but the signings have had little effect. The Magpies have spent more days in the bottom three this season than in any other previous Premier League campaign.
Benitez has appointed Fabio Pecchia, Francisco de Miguel Moreno and Antonio Gomez Perez in coaching roles at Newcastle.
He has kept two of McClaren’s coaches — Ian Cathro and Simon Smith — but Paul Simpson, Alessandro Schoenmaker and Steve Black have left.