Sunderland boss Sam Allardyce admits he was surprised when old foe Rafael Benitez accepted the challenge of trying to drag derby rivals Newcastle out of the relegation mire.
The two men, who have enjoyed an at times less than cordial relationship in the past, will go head to head at St James’ Park on Sunday with their respective clubs yet again in severe danger of slipping out of the Premier League and knowing the value of the three points at stake.
It will be just Benitez’s second game in charge of the Magpies following a 1-0 defeat at leaders Leicester on Monday evening which left him with just nine fixtures remaining in which to pull off a rescue mission.
Newcastle staged something of a coup to land the Spaniard, who started the season in charge at Real Madrid, as Steve McClaren’s replacement and his appointment was not something Allardyce expected.
Asked if he was surprised, he replied: “I have to say I was quite surprised, yes, but obviously being a football man, he wanted to get back in and he sees Newcastle as a good opportunity.
“I have nothing against any foreign manager coming in and pitting their wits against us in the Premier League because it’s the biggest brand and the biggest league in the world.
“But from Steve’s point of view, I felt sorry for him and of course another English manager bites the dust. There are only three of us left now – there’s only me, Alan Pardew and Eddie Howe left now, so that’s a great shame.
“But pitting your wits against some of the best coaches in Europe is always a challenge and Rafa is one of those, I don’t think anybody would argue with that.
“We are getting Pep Guardiola, we have got Jurgen Klopp, we have still got Arsene Wenger and people like that, so we are enticing the best coaches in the world to come and work here, so it’s always a great challenge as a manager to be going against them and trying to get your team better than theirs to beat them.”
Allardyce and Benitez have not always been on the best of terms, with the former Bolton boss suggesting in his autobiography that the 55-year-old had little to do with Liverpool’s remarkable 2005 Champions League final success and he in return asking what the current Sunderland manager had ever won.
However, Allardyce insists that is all in the past.
He said: “Early days, it was a bit ferocious, but the mellowing of Sam Allardyce has happened over the last few years.
“But it’s not about me or Rafa, Sunday, apart from us doing our jobs behind the scenes. I’m sure there’s nothing I can say or do, and there’s certainly nothing Rafa can say or do in his press conference that’s going to rattle me, that’s for sure.”
For all their previous run-ins, the two men have never met in such pressing circumstances with Sunderland clear of the drop zone only by virtue of goal difference and Newcastle still languishing inside it, and the odds on both escaping are remote.
Allardyce admitted: “It would be a massive escape if both of us did it because it’s certainly looking like at the moment, for me, it’s probably Swansea or Crystal Palace that we can catch, and they have to lose a lot of their games.
“Their nine games, they are going to have to lose or draw them – if they get a couple more wins, they’ll be safe because I still think 38 points will do it this year.”