RAFAEL BENITEZ bemoaned his Newcastle United players’ failure to hold on to the lead as they crashed to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of a Chelsea side he expects to be challenging for the title.

The Magpies made a dream start at Stamford Bridge as Dwight Gayle capitalised on a rare Chelsea defensive error to break the deadlock in the 13th minute.

However, Newcastle’s reshuffled five-man backline creaked repeatedly in the rest of the first half, and goals from Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata enabled Chelsea to claim the lead before half-time.

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“We knew it could be like this,” said Benitez, whose side have now picked up just one point from the last available 18. “But it is a pity because we started really well. After that, we made some mistakes, and as I said against Manchester United, we paid for that.

“You can stop them (Chelsea) if you do things a little bit better, although it is still very difficult because they have players who can beat people in one-against-one situations.

“You have cover for that, and that means you leave other players free and when you press high, they can run in behind. They have the width as well, so they have a lot of good things.”

The result moves Chelsea alongside Manchester United in joint second position in the table, and Benitez expects his former employers to continue mounting a strong defence of their Premier League crown.

“They are a very good team, and they will be competing for the title,” he said. “It is obvious that they are one of the teams that will be there in the top three. We did well, it was a pity that we couldn’t keep the score (at 1-0) for a while.”

Having failed to win any of their last six games, Newcastle now face crucial back-to-back home games against Leicester City and Everton.

“I don’t think about two games – I think about the next one, that is it,” said Benitez. “The main thing for me is just the next one. We are in the Premier League and every game is so difficult that we have to realise that if we play like this, we suffer like today.”