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Sam Is Playing Mind Games - But Has Rafa Learned His Lesson?

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Sam Allardyce has been attempting to get into the mind of Rafael Benitez this week, and Callum Mackay ponders whether the battle for survival between the North East's two biggest clubs will end with Sunderland on top.

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We all remember Rafa’s ‘facts’ rant. While locked in a battle with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United for the title, Benitez tried to outmanoeuvre the master of mind games, by providing a list of ‘facts’ he claimed proved that Ferguson received undue leniency from match officials and the FA. The outcome spoke for itself. Benitez’s Liverpool who had been pushing for the title and spent considerable time at the summit of the table, lost focus and conceded the title to Ferguson’s ever stubborn Manchester United.

Now it seems Sam Allardyce is trying to unsettle Newcastle and Rafa Benitez by making statements to the media with regards to the ease of Newcastle’s remaining games, their spending and their fitness. I myself don’t enjoy this kind of back and forth between managers. Of course, Allardyce may just have been asked to comment on Newcastle’s game against Palace and their run in by a journalist desperate for a story, but he could have simply brushed it off and talked about ourselves.

By claiming that their game against Palace was almost a forgone conclusion, Allardyce must have been attempting to effect the mindset of Newcastle’s players heading into the game. This does not mean he didn’t have a point. Not only have Palace been woeful since December, but they came into the game on the back of the elation and distraction of securing a place in the FA cup final. With survival assured and the league now a formality, many Palace players will be ducking challenges and protecting themselves for a shot at silverware. Newcastle, meanwhile, have to put it all in the line just to survive.

As an aside, perhaps Allardyce was hoping to illicit a reaction from Crystal palace, after all the accusation of unprofessionalism and indifference would hardly be one Palace would want leveled at them. While Benitez and Newcastle would identify the obvious intention almost immediately, it must have an effect and add some pressure, not to mention anger, that a rival manager is talking about them. It’s about how you react to those emotions and channel them into the performance.

Not content with his first attempt, Allardyce appeared to take aim at Benitez’s fitness regime earlier this week, claiming foreign coaches come into the league and introduce double sessions, burning their players out and causing injuries. Allardyce is backing his own style to reap rewards in this most vital of weeks and looking at our injury record, who can blame him? We have a fully fit squad and even Kaboul is avoiding injury. So while a lot can be said against Allardyce and his approach, he appears to know how to keep a squad fit.

Benitez would seem to be resisting the urge to respond to the taunts in kind, perhaps hesitant to become embroiled in another back and forth with an experienced British manager. Of course, Allardyce will never be at Ferguson’s mind game level, but he has proven over the years that his teams can get inside the heads of opposition.

Regardless of what Allardyce says of Newcastle, it is clear Benitez’s influence is growing with each game. Their players are fighting and their defence is increasingly organised, while key players in key positions are growing in stature and confidence. Townsend believes he can win games for Newcastle, while Lascelles is thriving under Benitez’s coaching. Tottenham’s season ending draw against Chelsea, not to mention the carnage that took place within the game, means they will head into the last few games depleted and deflated. This could be a positive or a negative for us.

Now they cannot win the title, Spurs players may wish to ensure they do not unnecessarily injure themselves before the Euros. Villa, meanwhile, are relegated and on a terrible losing run, with most of their players lacking any kind of fight or pride. It would appear to all be falling into place just in time for Newcastle. Of course, Spurs might turn their deflation into a determination to end the season on a high, free from the pressure of a title chase with fresh fringe players seizing the opportunity suspensions present. Or they might be so deflated and depleted that they finish with a whimper. You cannot legislate for how players will respond to these situations and what mentality a team has when confronted with unique pressures and stimulation.

This is why I’m not a big fan of mind games. Football does not always conform to logic and even the best laid plans are laid to waste. Mind games can backfire and Premier League institutions like Villa can fall, while teams built on identity, hard work, team spirit and sensibly acquired quality like Leicester and Bournemouth can prevail. The most obvious prediction is not always the correct one and the intended consequence of playing mind games and spending money does not always come to pass. Benitez learned this the hard way.

If Newcastle fail to win at Villa Park I am extremely confident we will stay up. I believe we can win on the last day and if we play to our full potential we can beat Everton. We’ve done it before, so there’s no reason we can’t do it again. There really is no predicting the next week, but it is impossible to ensure our survival by talking about other teams and managers. What will keep us up is preparing ourselves and winning our own games.

That is a fact.