London - Rafael Benitez returned to English football on Friday with the task of saving Newcastle United from Premier League relegation after the struggling north-east side announced the Spaniard as their new manager.
Former Liverpool boss Benitez, sacked by Real Madrid earlier this season, has signed a three-year deal with Newcastle, who are currently second-bottom in the table with just 10 league games remaining this term.
His appointment was announced just hours after Newcastle confirmed that they had sacked former manager Steve McClaren.
"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 Benitez in a Newcastle statement.
Benitez was Liverpool's manager from 2004-2010 and also had a brief stint as Chelsea caretaker boss during the 2012/13 season.
He tried to rally Newcastle's increasingly frustrated supporters by saying: "All of us must push together in the same direction and with the same target in mind. This is the reason why I'm going to ask for your total support to successfully complete this task."
The 55-year-old added: "Personally, it means my return to the Premier League, closer to my home and my family. I can't be happier.
"C'mon Toon Army! The club and I need your total involvement!"
Newcastle managing director Lee Charnley hailed Benitez's appointment, saying: "In Rafa we have, without doubt, secured the services of one of Europe's top managers.
"Our sole focus now is to give our full support to Rafa, his coaching team and the players in order to secure our status in the Premier League.
Earlier, Charnley found himself apologising for the "uncertainty" surrounding the 54-year-old McClaren's position after Saturday's 3-1 home defeat by Bournemouth.
That result was widely regarded as making any extension of the former England manager's nine-month Newcastle reign impossible, with the Magpies having won just six of their 28 league games so far this season, and on Friday the club said McClaren had been sacked with "immediate effect".
McClaren, in a statement issued later Friday through the League Managers' Association, said he understood why he had been sacked but insisted he could have turned the tide of poor results.
"I am obviously very disappointed with the decision," he said. "I appreciate any frustrations relating to the team's results and the club subsequently finding itself in a battle to avoid relegation. I remain confident, however, that we would have stayed in the Premier League with a view to building for next season.
"I would like to place on record what a privilege it has been to manage Newcastle United Football Club. It is a great a club - the embodiment of the city, with incredible supporters."
Magpies fans have long been unhappy with the way Newcastle's millionaire owner Mike Ashley, the man behind Britain's Sports Direct chain, has run the club .
The team's troubles have been reflected in a merry-go-round at St James' that has seen 10 managers in the 12 years since Bobby Robson, another ex-England boss, left in 2004.
For all their passionate support and 'big club' status, Newcastle have not won a major trophy since the 1969 European Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a forerunner of the Europa League.
They spent $41 million on new players during the January transfer window in a bid to avoid the drop but only Aston Villa are below them in the table, although the Magpies are just a point away from safety.
Benitez, who guided Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005, will have just days to get to know his new players before a formidably tough first match away to Premier League leaders Leicester on Monday.
His first home game in charge will be against local rivals Sunderland on March 20, one of the most significant Tyne-Wear derbies in years given the Black Cats are also battling to avoid relegation.