Newcastle skipper Jamaal Lascelles has claimed Rafa Benitez has been the Iceman of St James’ Park – even when the relegation heat has been at its fiercest.
And in Spaniard Benitez, Toon defender Lascelles believes the Geordies have their very own Special One after the way he has masterminded a tough season back in the Premier League.
As they prepare to take on visitors Arsenal today, Newcastle are still not mathematically safe even though the chances of them crashing back to the Championship have been receding by the week recently.
After three wins on the bounce against Leicester, Huddersfield and Southampton, Newcastle are finishing the season strongly after reacting with positive focus to the relegation threat that hung over the club until mid-February.
And Lascelles reckons that is down to the way former Real Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Napoli and Valencia boss Benitez conducts himself in the technical area and the dressing room on match days.
“Rafa Benitez is always calm even when we are losing at St James’ Park and it’s a bit hectic,” said the 24-year-old star.
“You might see him sweating on the sidelines but inside I can guarantee he will be the calmest man in the stadium.
“He’s been there in these tense situations so many times before. He’s managed in big European finals in the Champions League and Europa League, so he knows what he’s doing.
“He is definitely, definitely a special manager.”
Lascelles has been a mainstay of the Newcastle defence which has kept three clean sheets in their last six games – famously starting with a 1-0 win against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.
That run has brought four wins and just one defeat – against Anfield at Liverpool – with Lascelles heralding the arrival of January loan signings Kenedy from Chelsea and Sparta Prague keeper Martin Dubravka as more inspired work by his gaffer.
Benitez was at war with owner Mike Ashley earlier in the season over his transfer budget for the new year – restricted because of uncertainty surrounding potential takeover negotiations.
While those talks with Amanda Staveley ultimately broke down, Benitez saved the day with his January business.
“The minute Kenedy came in he started creating things, getting assists and scoring goals too and down the other end our keeper Martin Dubravka has been keeping clean sheets,” said Lascelles.
“Martin’s first game was against Manchester United and without him we would probably have lost because he made some great saves that day. So I think the manager has definitely done some great business there.
“I think we just need to keep pushing and not take our foot off the gas.”
Newcastle hope to take advantage of Arsenal’s travelling week from hell after Arsene Wenger and his stars made the trip to Moscow for their Europa League quarter-final clash with CSKA.
Another victory would push Benitez and his stars over the 40-point mark – even though many critics believe Toon are already safe.
Safety, though, isn’t enough for Benitez – or his stars. And Lascelles insists they have to show the winning mentality their manager is always demanding in the final games of the campaign.
“We need to make sure we are safe but also to aim for a higher number of points than just the safe option,” he said. “We need to make sure we can finish as high as we can even if we are safe with two games to go.
“That’s when we have to be hungry to win those final games and treat them with the same importance as if we were in danger.”
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