Thursday 14 December 2017

Rafa hopes Anfield returns sparks something 'special'

Rafael Benitez is still viewed with affection by Liverpool fans Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Rafael Benitez is still viewed with affection by Liverpool fans Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Damian Spellman

Rafael Benitez has told his Newcastle players they could still be heroes even if they play for only a few minutes as he attempts to steer the club clear of relegation danger.

The Magpies have at least given themselves a chance of preserving their Premier League status with a return of four points from home games against Swansea and Manchester City, but travel to the Spaniard's former club Liverpool on Saturday still deep in trouble.

Benitez made big decisions ahead of those two games, leaving £12m January signing Jonjo Shelvey sitting on the bench for both and leading scorer Georginio Wijnaldum among the substitutes against City on Tuesday evening.

However, the 56-year-old wants all his players ready to perform to their best wherever they start a game, just as he did during his time at Anfield.

"I use the example of Vladimir Smicer. At Liverpool, he was not playing too many games and I said to the players who weren't playing too many games, 'You have to be ready and fit, you never know when you will be important'.

"And he was. He came in and he was massive for us in the Champions League final. Gini (Wijnaldum) came on (against City) and he could have won the game in the last five minutes, so the players have to know how important they are because in the end, they can make the difference. They have to be ready."

Benitez is held in warm affection on the red half of Merseyside after that famous 2005 Champions League success, but he faces a very different challenge this time around.

Newcastle remain two points adrift of safety with just four games remaining.

He has been asked repeatedly how keeping the club up would rank alongside to Champions League glory, but he is reluctant to compare the two.

He said: "It would be massive for everyone and fantastic for me, but you can't rank things. People ask me about Istanbul but it's different.

"Staying up would be massive - and I'd be really pleased - and the beginning of something special for this club."

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