RAFAEL BENITEZ has backed Jamaal Lascelles to make a late push for a World Cup place, and claimed the Newcastle United skipper is every bit as good as the other centre-halves battling for inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s England squad.

Lascelles, who has shaken off a minor knock to take his place in the Newcastle team that will take on Swansea City this afternoon, has been the Magpies’ most consistent performer in the first half of the season.

His performances have not gone unnoticed, with Southgate having made a number of visits to St James’ Park to watch him at first hand, and have led to increased speculation linking him with a possible place in the squad that will travel to Russia for this summer’s World Cup finals.

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John Stones and Phil Jones are certain to be selected, but with increased question marks over Gary Cahill’s international future, the likes of Harry Maguire, Michael Keane and Chris Smalling find themselves fighting for recognition.

Benitez feels Lascelles is the equal of any of those players, and having played for England at every representative level from Under-18s through to Under-21s, Benitez feels it is only a matter of time before the 24-year-old wins his first cap at senior level.

When asked whether Lascelles was as good as Maguire and Keane, the Newcastle boss said: “For me, for sure. He is someone who has great potential because he is keen to learn in every training session. He has to improve, but he is always open to hear and then try to follow your advice if you are telling him something.

“You don’t have too many centre-backs around with this presence and this character. If he continues learning things, he can be an important player in England.

“Could he be involved in the World Cup? All I would say is that is football. If he can improve a lot during these months – I am sure he will continue improving – you never know. He’s not in the squad now, but if they have a couple of problems, maybe he could be there. But to have a chance to do that, he has to continue working hard and improving.”

Benitez and Lascelles have developed a close relationship during their time together on Tyneside. The Newcastle boss inherited a squad that lacked leadership and on-field direction when he took over almost two years ago, and quickly identified Lascelles as the ideal person to provide those qualities.

Having been impressed with the centre-half’s willingness to speak up within the dressing room – Lascelles famously questioned a number of his team-mates’ attitudes as they were relegated from the Premier League – he handed him the captain’s armband ahead of last season’s successful Championship promotion campaign.

Lascelles has revelled in the captain’s role, emerging as a powerful leader and taking his own game to a different level. He clearly has the respect of those playing alongside him, and is likely to be the subject of considerable transfer interest in the summer.

“He has a great attitude,” said Benitez. “He is working on his leadership as a captain, so I think it’s quite positive for the team. He can still improve things, but in terms of mentality and character, he is someone who is going in the right direction and that is the main thing for us and the club.”

Lascelles will return to action as Swansea visit Tyneside this afternoon for a game that could have far-reaching ramifications in the relegation battle.

A Newcastle win would see Benitez’s side move nine points clear of their opponents, and could potentially see them return to the top half of the table. A defeat, however, would undo the good work that resulted in festive away wins at West Ham and Stoke, and could see the Magpies slip into the bottom three.

Newcastle’s last two league victories have come away from St James’ Park, and the club’s last home outing in the league resulted in a disappointing goalless draw with Brighton.

On that occasion, Benitez’s side struggled to break down a well-drilled Brighton defence, and with Swansea expected to adopt conservative tactics of their own this afternoon, patience could be required.

“It is always more difficult to play at home than to play away in terms of controlling the games and managing the situation,” said Benitez. “Teams are deep and organised, and it’s difficult to break them down.

“It was difficult last year, and it is difficult this year, but that is the key factor of the fans helping the players.

“My message is very clear, and it has been clear the whole season. Hopefully, they will understand. We want to stay in the Premier League, so then we have to support our players. These are our players, they give everything. If they make a mistake, if we make mistakes, it is part of the game, but still we have to support them because we need them to win games and to do well.”

Rob Elliot is available for this afternoon’s game after recovering from the thigh problem that has kept him out of Newcastle’s last three matches, but Florian Lejeune, Jesus Gamez and Aleksandar Mitrovic remain unavailable because of injury.