EVEN though Rafael Benitez shares Jose Mourinho's belief that Newcastle United will stay up this season, the Spaniard thinks keeping Premier League football on Tyneside will be a huge success story if it happens.

While second placed Manchester United head to St James’ Park tomorrow five points clear of Liverpool behind them, the Magpies are only a point above the relegation zone after 26 matches.

It is a far cry from when the two clubs used to go head-to-head in the Premier League title race under Kevin Keegan and Sir Alex Ferguson, although much has changed since then at both clubs.

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And given this is Newcastle’s first campaign back in the top-flight after winning the Championship, Benitez would be more than satisfied to keep them up come May – particularly having not had the sort of cash to spend to really make an impression in the top tier.

Such factors have not stopped Mourinho from believing Newcastle will stay up because it is a “club with an army of fans who live for the club”. Benitez hopes such predictions come true, and has outlined how difficult the challenge has been.

The Newcastle boss said: “I have the belief we will do it. Not just for me, but everyone, we can do it. We started the season well, had a few problems, and you could see for the rest of the teams, like Huddersfield, Brighton, you can’t just win games in a row, it is difficult.

“You have to do really well to win games in this league so it would be a massive achievement to stay up.

“I thought it could be a massive achievement (even in September), but watching the teams and the differences between the teams, the experience of the different clubs, now you realise it is even more difficult. I am still happy with how things are going and we can do it.”

While Mourinho and Benitez used to go head-to-head regularly at the highest level, the Newcastle boss also remembers the big occasions when he would lead Liverpool into battle against Manchester United. Tomorrow’s fixture might not carry the same significance, but Benitez knows it is still an important game.

He said: “It’s different because you have a lot of top sides around, massive clubs here and abroad, but at the same time it’s a challenge.

“For me and as a club you have to make sure you compete by working hard. It’s a different rivalry between the teams (Liverpool and Manchester United), but for us now every game is massive especially when you face a team like Man United.”

Newcastle are hoping Islam Slimani will be available after thigh trouble prevented him from making his debut against Crystal Palace last weekend.

Having his sort of presence in the final third is what Benitez has been searching for, although he is not promising that Newcastle will start defensively against Manchester United – like they did against Manchester City at St James’ on Boxing Day.

Benitez said: “I was watching the TV, analysing some tactics from Huddersfield, Burnley, West Ham, Stoke, Leicester, a lot of teams playing defensive against Man City … that is what you have to do with a team who has 80 per cent possession. Your tactics have to be right against different teams.

“We were in the game the last time against Man City, each game has its own tactics. We are not a defensive team we are a team that has to defend and that is different.

“Why would I be scared (to do it again)? I’ve seen other teams with the No 9 back on the penalty spot. It depends on the pundit and how they analyse. We’re not a defensive team, we are a team that has to defend.”

Ciaran Clark and Mohamed Diame have recovered from knocks sustained at Palace and are available, while Benitez is pondering a change between the posts.

Goalkeeper Karl Darlow made a number of stops last weekend but then looked a nervous wreck for a period in the second half when Newcastle were up against it. Martin Dubravka, signed on loan from Sparta Prague, is pressing for a start.

Benitez said: “Martin has trained with the team. He is quite clever so he has increased the competition between keepers and that’s a good thing between the three of them. He is doing well.

“We have had the same situation all season. We have had the keepers making good saves and then not played so well. With keepers or defenders consistency is the key and the extra competition for the place will be good for them.”