Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez hopes timing of game in hand on Norwich City will prove perfect

Rafa Benitez applaudes Newcastle win against Swansea. Picture: PA/Owen Humphreys

Rafa Benitez applaudes Newcastle win against Swansea. Picture: PA/Owen Humphreys - Credit: PA

Rafael Benitez has put Newcastle on red alert to take advantage if Manchester City allow themselves to be distracted by their forthcoming Champions League showdown with Real Madrid.

City travel to St James' Park this evening (7.45pm) for a rescheduled clash with the Magpies – with the hosts knowing a win will move them above Norwich in the table.

Newcastle then entertain Stoke on Saturday before the Spanish aristocrats arrive at the Etihad Stadium next week for the first leg of their semi-final showdown.

Manager Manuel Pellegrini has already had to contend with the circus surrounding the impending arrival of successor Pep Guardiola, and Benitez is hoping the Chilean's players have other things on their minds as Newcastle look to drag themselves out of the drop zone.

He said: 'I'm sure Pellegrini will try to keep them focused, but in the back of your head, you are thinking the semi-final is massive, to be in the final and have the opportunity to win the final, so imagine if you pick up an injury or have any problem, so I think the players will be thinking about that – hopefully, a lot of them.

'They are in a good position now in the Premier League and they will want to stay higher. But in the back of their head will be the doubt that if they pick up an injury, they cannot play in the semi-final or final.'

Benitez has challenged Moussa Sissoko to become 'dangerous' once again as he plots a path out of the relegation minefield.

Most Read

The 56-year-old Spaniard appointed the France midfielder as his stand-in captain against Swansea on Saturday with Fabricio Coloccini injured and deputy Jonjo Shelvey sitting on the bench, and was rewarded with Sissoko's best individual performance for some time as he scored in a precious 3-0 victory.

Benitez will need to see more of the same from the former Toulouse midfielder in the remaining five games of the campaign if the Magpies are to retain their top-flight status, but he has confidence in a player who has borne his fair share of criticism from disgruntled fans this season.

'When I came, a lot of people were giving me information. Since I came, I had that conversation with him,' Benitez said.

'He was one of the players that I knew when we were playing against Newcastle was very dangerous. I tried to bring him back and give him this confidence.

'The first day watching his face, he was believing. He was thinking, 'I can do well'.'

There were raised eyebrows on Tyneside when Sissoko was handed the captain's armband with Benitez citing not only his ability on the pitch, but his influence with the club's French-speaking players, and he has been delighted with the Frenchman's response.

He said: 'Before, he did not have too much confidence. That can happen. It is not question of who is in charge. Some players are doing well, they have more confidence. Some lose confidence little by little.

'The team was not performing and doing well. It's normal. The first day, I was telling him, 'You have to score goals, you have to score goals'. He is doing well. He is a good example for the other players.'

If Sissoko and his team-mates are to prosper against City, they will have to find a way to stop Sergio Aguero from adding to his tally of 26 goals for the season, five of them in a 6-1 victory over Newcastle at the Etihad Stadium in October.

Benitez said with a smile: 'Hopefully he can score a lot of goals in the Champions League, but not against us.

'To stop him, it's not just about one player, you have to work as a team. But they have so many good players that you can't concentrate on just Aguero.'