JUST imagine where Newcastle United could be if Rafael Benitez had actually signed more of the players he really wanted in the summer.

And consider what a Benitez team could achieve if Mike Ashley sold the club to a buyer willing to give the Spaniard some serious cash on the transfer front.

No wonder there is an air of anticipation and excitement inside St James’ Park following the news Ashley is selling up, even if Newcastle failed to hit top gear and yet still managed to emerge with a 1-0 victory over a hard-working Crystal Palace.

Newcastle have one of the best managers in the world leading them. If any further proof was required it has arrived in the opening nine matches of this Premier League season.

Despite a net spend of less than £20m after last season’s dip into the Championship, Newcastle are showing they can handle the top-flight under Benitez and he is showing he is capable of leading this young group of players to a top half finish.

The team that has tended to boast the youngest average age of any of the Premier League sides this season achieved another three points against Crystal Palace – even if Newcastle were not in full flow against their determined, albeit rock bottom, opponents.

Not only is it testament to Benitez for giving the players the confidence to deliver on the big stage, the men actually pulling on the shirts deserve enormous credit for the way they have gone about delivering results in what is widely perceived to be the best in the world.

“I think the players always believed that they belonged in the Premier League, they had that confidence after the first game,” said Benitez. “Even though we lost that to Tottenham, we played with ten men, but you could see this was a very good team.

“We could see the level, we could see how hard we worked and how organised we were. If you can do that, you will have chances [to be successful].

“We are where we are and we are happy with what we have got. We have to make sure these players continue to believe and we can improve and do better. I know we beat Palace, but it was not a great game or an easy game.”

Asked if his attempts to recruit a higher calibre of player in January, Benitez merely claimed he was “happy with the players” he already has; clearly knowing the focus must be on maintaining the positive results between now and the end of the year.

Newcastle were poor in possession against Crystal Palace, often giving the ball away and allowing Roy Hodgson’s team to attack regularly. Rob Elliott, in the home goal, only didn’t have a save to make because of the Eagles’ wayward shooting.

Things might have been different if referee Stuart Attwell had sent off Yohan Cabaye in the first half. Instead he deemed that his wild, scissor chop on DeAndre Yedlin, which could have left serious damage, was only worthy of a caution.

Cabaye was booed thereafter, with home fans reminding him regularly of his decision to leave a few years ago, but he still showed his quality with brilliant deliveries throughout the game. From a Newcastle view, they must have been relieved Christian Benteke wasn’t around to get on the end of them.

The presence of England boss Gareth Southgate in the stands didn’t inspire Jonjo Shelvey either, while Jamaal Lascelles was marginally better but both could have done with better days than this if they are to hit the international stage.

As the game wore on, and the introduction of Mikel Merino from the bench, Newcastle did start to control possession more and Julian Speroni did have to be equal to a couple of efforts from Mohamed Diame and Shelvey.

Eventually Merino did time his movement perfectly in the area with four minutes to go to head in Matt Ritchie’s corner to secure three points when it looked destined to remain goalless. A fourth league win of the season clearly highlights how important Benitez is to Newcastle.

He said: “The main thing is the players are working hard, you can say what you want, but if they are not willing to do it, the team will not improve.

“They want to work hard and they want to learn, the players listen to you, that’s the main thing. After that, young players, it is easier when they see a manager with experience. You put everything together and we have a team that still has plenty of games to go, but my message to everybody is that we have achieved nothing. We have to keep going.

“If we lose three games in a row, everybody will be panicking, but we are in a really good position. We have to keep doing the same things and stick together and take it one game at a time. We can be stronger if we keep this idea. If we think we have done a great job, we will not.

“I’m always demanding, that is the way. You cannot think you have achieved anything because in my experience, if you do, that, you will not achieve anything. Everyone was expecting this would be an easy game, but it wasn’t. I have this experience, I can say don’t do this, don’t do that, but we have to realise that we have to focus every single game.”

Despite a difficult game, some wet weather and a long wait for the opening goal, the atmosphere inside St James’ Park highlighted just how much the fans are enjoying life under Benitez in the Premier League.

He said: “It’s a young team and we can improve a lot of things and we can improve a lot of players, we must believe we can get results.

“I feel like it’s important to realise where we were and where we are. We were relegated, we have come back from the Championship and to be where we are in the Premier League, every fan, every player and every member of staff needs to remember that the way we have done this is by working hard and sticking together.

“I think the late goals help that atmosphere in the stadium. I was thinking when I made the substitutions that we still had plenty of time, we stayed calm. I knew we would have chances and it’s just important to have that confidence that a late goal will come.”

It was all smiles at the final whistle, in the stands and in the dressing room, with fans leaving holding dreams of what could be around the corner under a new owner. Benitez should be too, although he isn’t doing too badly already with what he has to work with.