If Rafael Benitez can rescue Newcastle it will be on a par with Istanbul in 2005

Rafa Benitez 3

The former Liverpool boss has led the Magpies to five points in the last three matches.

Rafael Benitez took on arguably the most difficult job of his career when he agreed to succeed Steve McClaren as Newcastle United manager in early March.

When he took over just three days before a trip to leaders Leicester City, the Magpies were second-bottom of the Premier League table on goal difference, a point adrift of local rivals Sunderland and safety.

That table did not reflect the whole story, however; under McClaren, the Tyneside club had lost five of their last six matches, and had won just two of their previous 12 league fixtures since mid-December.

Fan dissent was at possibly an all-time high as performances got worse and worse, senior players were reported to be bemused at how the former England manager was keeping hold of his job whilst steadfastly refusing to resign - in short, the club were in disarray.

Even McClaren's dismissal spoke to the deep-rooted issues at the club; the beleaguered boss claimed he had only found out about his sacking through media reports before eventually being informed by the club on behalf of owner Mike Ashley.

All told, it was seen as something of a coup for the club to be able to name Benitez as McClaren's replacement almost immediately, with many questioning the former Liverpool, Chelsea, and Real Madrid manager's decision to wade into the mess at St. James' Park.

It is certainly a task to which the 56-year-old is not accustomed - he has not been involved in a true relegation battle since his time in charge at Tenerife at the turn of the century.

With only 10 games to save the club, Newcastle fans were left praying that the club had pulled the trigger soon enough and that the change would be one of those often-elusive decisions which has an immediate, explosive impact.

Alas, it was not to be. Newcastle slipped to an (admittedly expected) defeat to Leicester in Benitez's first match, and though a late equaliser halted their woeful run of form in the Tyne-Wear derby before the international break, a fortnight later they suffered a hugely damaging last-gasp defeat at fellow strugglers Norwich.

A third loss in his first four games followed at Southampton and by that stage, just three weeks ago and with just six matches remaining, the club were six points adrift of safety having conceded more goals than any other team except since-relegated Aston Villa.

In the past 10 days, however, Newcastle have looked a club transformed. Benitez's decision to drop Jonjo Shelvey and replace him as captain with Moussa Sissoko, was a controversial one but paid immediate dividend as the Frenchman put a 3-0 win over Swansea beyond doubt with a late second goal.

That victory, Newcastle's first in 10 weeks, breathed new life into the club, and a second three points could and perhaps should have followed against Manchester City in a 1-1 draw.

Then came the most remarkable result of Benitez's reign so far as he led his side to come back from 2-0 down at former club Liverpool to draw 2-2 and close the gap to just a single point.

That the club even have a fighting chance of surviving relegation is credit to the Spaniard - the players look transformed and have hailed his approach and tactical methods, and pundits such as former Magpies player and relegated manager Alan Shearer have suggested that the club would no longer be in this mess had they acted to appoint Benitez sooner.

Benitez's finest moment as a manager undoubtedly came in the Champions League final in Istanbul in 2005, when he led his Liverpool side back from the grave to wipe out a three-goal deficit and ultimately defeat AC Milan on penalties.

If he can complete Newcastle's own rise from the ashes, he will have another Houdini-like escape to put on his CV, and it is one that would be right up there with that remarkable night in Turkey 11 years ago.

Register for NEWCASTLE UNITED team updates

Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch