Rafa Benitez remains untouchable at Newcastle as he insists '2nd place would be fine with me'

Luke Edwards
Rafa Benitez asks for calm during Newcastle's 1-1 draw with Leeds  - Rex Features

Promotion is all that matters for Newcastle United, which is just as well, because Rafa Benitez’s side may well have already lost the title to Brighton and Hove Albion.

Having swapped the lead in the Championship like children trading cards in the playground, Newcastle’s failure to beat Leeds United at home on Good Friday means they are four points behind Brighton with just four games remaining.

Brighton rarely look like losing and, managed by the hugely popular former Newcastle manager Chris Hughton, few on Tyneside would begrudge the South Coast club top spot, yet there will be a nagging sense of disappointment if they do not return to the Premier League as champions.

Having gambled on running a Premier League budget in the second tier, in order to make sure their stay was as brief as possible, it is imperative Benitez – who is one of the highest paid managers in Europe on an annual wage of more than £4m-  takes them up at the first time of asking.

Ever aware of the need to manage expectations, as well as his players, Benitez has argued since the summer that it does not matter how they go up and they remain on course to do that, despite the horrendous defending that allowed Leeds’ Chris Wood to score a 95th minute equaliser at the end of a game Newcastle had dominated.

Newcastle failed to beat Leeds on Friday

However, there is also no disguising the fact, Benitez has a squad that is the envy of the division, with the highest wage bill seen outside the top flight. A failure to go up as champions will be just that, regardless of the relief that will pour out of St James’ Park as soon as promotion is assured.

“Second place would be fine with me,” said Benitez, when asked if the title was Brighton’s to lose, although midfielder Isaac Hayden perhaps gave a more honest appraisal of the situation.

“It always matters if you finish first or second doesn’t it?” said the former Arsenal and Hull City player. “As much as you want to say it doesn’t matter or promotion is the main thing, and of course it is, everyone wants to get promoted, that’s the aim.

“But I think there will be a little bit of a sour taste if we weren’t to go on and win the title. But at the end of the day, promotion is the main objective and you don’t get promoted without winning the games.

Brighton look set to finish top of the Championship 

“It doesn’t matter about Brighton or Huddersfield, as long as we perform and we get the points necessary in the last few games we are promoted anyway.”

Despite Newcastle’s slightly surprising vulnerability, particularly at home, Benitez has rarely stopped smiling since he became manager.

It is all part of the charm offensive and if it looks forced at times, there is no questioning the positive impact he has had since he arrived in March last year.

Even if they fail to return to the Premier League as champions, Benitez has healed wounds at a club that was tearing itself apart before he arrived 13 months ago. Promotion, in whatever form it is achieved, will prevent financial meltdown, as well justify his own extravagant salary and reputation.

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Benitez has united Newcastle with it supporters again and has therefore been spared the sort of criticism that would have been fired at others in his position during the various setbacks this season. It is that calmness under pressure that makes him ideal and two wins and a draw from their remaining four games, will guarantee promotion, with Huddersfield eight points behind with only 15 left to play for.

“After the performance against Leeds, you say to anyone who is a Newcastle fan, that the team will do well in the next games and get the points we need, they would say yes please,” said Benitez.

“I am not pleased because we could not get the three points, but I am happy with the performance and the way the players have reacted.

“We have had a defeat [sic] and made some mistakes but we should have won easily and the performance of the team was so good that we have to be positive.”

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