Sport Soccer

Friday 25 May 2018

Rafael Benitez would have taken Newcastle's good start at beginning of season

Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez, left, got the better of Crystal Palace counterpart Roy Hodgson
Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez, left, got the better of Crystal Palace counterpart Roy Hodgson

Rafael Benitez admitted he would happily have taken 14 points and a place in the top six after Newcastle's first nine games back in the Premier League.

Substitute Mikel Merino's 85th-minute header snatched a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace at St James' Park to ease the Magpies up the table and leave Benitez a happy man as he headed home on Saturday evening.

Asked if he would have settled for the club's current position, he replied: "Yes, it could be.

"Obviously, we have come from the Championship and we didn't sign too many players, so if you were telling me that after September 1, I would have said to you, 'It's fine'.

"We have to keep working and credit to our players because they are doing really well."

Benitez is unlikely to get carried away, however, after watching his side turn in one of their poorest performances of the season against bottom of the table Palace before 21-year-old Merino, who completed a permanent £7million move to Tyneside from Borussia Dortmund earlier this month, struck amid a late Newcastle flurry.

Until that point the Magpies, who have been engulfed by takeover talk for the last week, had been decidedly second best with Wilfried Zaha squandering a good opportunity before the break.

The Spaniard said: "Obviously always when you win, you have to be really pleased. In this case, without playing at the level at which we have been playing in the past, it's even more important for us to get three points.

"I don't think too much about where we are. I'm happy with the points that we have because it means that all the hard work in the training sessions is paying dividends now, so that is positive."

Merino was given a warm welcome when he was introduced as a 56th minute replacement for Isaac Hayden, but his big moment arrived when he got his head to Matt Ritchie's late corner to send the home fans into raptures.

Benitez said: "It's not the main thing, the best thing he can do - he can pass the ball and he has scored for Spain's Under-21s with his feet. But he's not bad in the air - we have seen today he is not bad in the air."

However, Palace boss Roy Hodgson had a different view of the decisive goal.

He said: "I must say, I couldn't see it from the touchline, but when you watch the replay, we were unlucky that the [James] McArthur header actually cannons into Merino and whizzes past our goalkeeper, so that was a further piece of bad luck."

Hodgson was disappointed to have come away empty-handed, but remains convinced he can drag the Eagles out of trouble.

He said: "Why should I not believe that? There are 31 games to go. We have beaten the champions and we have come here today to St James' Park against a Newcastle team doing very well and once again - in my opinion - matched them and even - again, in my opinion - were the stronger team through large periods of the game, so why should I not have belief?

"I shall stop believing when the number of points that we are behind doesn't match the number of games that are left.

"That's not going to happen in October. That could happen some time in March, April, I would think, at the earliest, so there's a lot of work to do before then."

Press Association

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