In many ways, it was inevitable. As soon as the ball cannoned off Salomon Rondon’s head and flew into the top corner after he met Kenedy‘s pinpoint cross, giving Newcastle United a two-goal lead against Bournemouth on Saturday, the comparisons with the great Alan Shearer begun.
After weeks of frustration at his lack of fitness, time was running out for the Venezuelan to make a good impression at St James’ Park; but on his fifth Premier League start at the weekend, he wiped the slate clean and kickstarted life on Tyneside. Not only did he score two first half goals, which gave the Magpies a second successive victory despite Jefferson Lerma pulling one back for Bournemouth, but he bullied the Cherries’ defence all afternoon, in a fashion Newcastle fans had become accustomed to from Shearer and many of the others to wear Rondon’s shirt, with the famous number nine on the back.
Whoever dons that number must deal with the casting shadow of the past, particularly Shearer’s and, as Saturday proved, the comparisons whenever they perform in the ‘typical’ way. Shearer himself tweeted his praise of Rondon after the game, but if the match itself suggested anything, it was while the idea that he is the heir to Newcastle’s favourite son and the Premier League’s top goalscorer is a little over the top, he certainly is Rafael Benitez’s best hope of helping the club avoid a third relegation inside a decade.
Newcastle have had two or three very competent strikers in the 12 years between Shearer’s retirement and Rondon’s arrival, though arguably the two best performing didn’t take on the perceived added pressure of that number nine. Demba Ba and Loïc Remy were both particular standouts, with the former scoring 29 times in 54 games between the summer of 2011 and January 2013. Rondon needs to be looking at them more than he does Shearer, because the club’s priorities have changed. Anything similar to the 16 goals of Ba in 2011/12, the 13 Remy scored two years later, or even the 11 in 22 Papiss Cisse, a lesser-regarded number nine, managed in 2014/15 would be just what the doctor ordered for Benitez.
Shearer stands alone, and certainly well clear of what Rondon could hope to achieve in a black and white shirt, as Benitez stated after the game.
”I am really pleased with him,” he said.
”We knew about the conditions involved in signing him, about his release clause. To sign a player of his experience in the Premier League is not easy, but if i could sign Alan Shearer for £50million right now, I would do it.
”To go close to Shearer would be almost impossible for Rondon, we are talking about different players and different times.”
Yet, Benitez was let down in the summer, as everybody knows by now. Mike Ashley‘s regime is very particular about the ideal signing for Newcastle. It would take extraordinary circumstances for them to sanction a deal for a player of Rondon’s age, 29, and they weren’t prepared to fund his release clause at parent club West Brom, of £16.5million. Benitez had to get creative, eventually agreeing on a loan deal which included Dwight Gayle going to the Hawthorns.
Games like Saturday lay the shortcomings of the Ashley approach bare. Consistency may not be his strong suit, but Rondon proved too hot to handle for a team currently sat in the top six. If he continues in the same vein and saves the Magpies from disaster, there is the potential for other suitors to appear, while West Brom may want him back in the event they get promoted from the Championship.
In the cases of both Ba and Remy, Newcastle were badly burnt; a £7million release clause in Ba’s contract was activated by Chelsea, while in exactly the same manner as with Rondon, the Magpies failed to guarantee that Remy‘s loan from Queen’s Park Rangers could made permanent. With options on the table after an impressive campaign, the Frenchman looked elsewhere, ironically enough replacing Ba at Stamford Bridge in 2014.
This is far from the only example of Ashley failing to learn his lesson, though; in fact, that has been a real theme throughout his reign. While Benitez admitted budget restricted bumped Rondon up his list of targets in the summer, it is the first time he has had a Premier League proven striker that he trusts up front, and it showed. He turns 30 next year, so perhaps he is not a long-term solution in attack, but the important thing is that if Benitez wants him to be, the board back him and get the deal done. Of course, there is the small matter of the manager’s own future to sort out before that bridge is crossed.
On the bright side, though, Newcastle head into the international break with light at the end of the tunnel. The confidence is back and the plan is taking shape. Ahead of a trip to Burnley and a home game against West Ham which kicks off the festive period, Benitez had a message regarding Rondon. He is still getting his fitness up to scratch and, when asked if the best is yet to come, the Newcastle boss simply smiled and said: “Yes, for sure.”
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