A BEAMING Rafael Benitez was able to reflect on a fabulous festive period as Newcastle United kicked off 2018 in style with a 1-0 win at Stoke City.

The Magpies pulled four points clear of the relegation zone as Ayoze Perez’s second-half winner secured a fully-deserved success at the Bet365 Stadium.

Perez turned in Jacob Murphy’s low cross to ensure Newcastle finished their Christmas schedule with a return of seven points from four matches against West Ham, Manchester City, Brighton and Stoke.

Benitez readily admits he would have taken his side’s last four results had he been offered them in the lead-up to Christmas, and while he continues to push for additions now the transfer window has opened, the Spaniard remains delighted with his players’ attitude and commitment as they look to retain their Premier League status.

“We would have taken what we have got (seven points from four games) if we had been offered it before Christmas,” said Benitez. “We started the season very well, but we went on a bad run and lost a little bit of confidence.

“The team was still working very hard though. I have been telling everyone that the team have not given up, and have still been working as hard as they can, and I am pleased you have been able to see this on the pitch. This was another good example of a team working extremely hard against another team that was giving everything too. Stoke were working so hard, they made it very difficult for us.”

Stoke produced a late flurry after falling behind, and Newcastle were indebted to their goalkeeper, Karl Darlow, who made three superb second-half saves to ensure his side were able to claim all three points.

However, for the vast majority of the opening 70 minutes, it was the visitors who were completely dominant, with Benitez’s tactical tinkering proving inspired.

The Magpies manager dropped both of his established centre-forwards – Dwight Gayle and Joselu – and opted to pair Perez and Christian Atsu up front. The pair are not really renowned as central strikers, but they combined to run the Stoke back four ragged, with their pace and movement enabling Newcastle to offer a considerable threat on the counter-attack.

“I knew that Atsu could play in this position because I knew him before,” said Benitez. “Ayoze has very clever movement, and the understanding between them both was very good. Then the rest of the team were helping with good passes and movement.

“After that, they were defending all together, and that was key. They (Stoke) started making crosses from everywhere, and we needed to cope with that, and we did well. They created some pressure, but we still had time to create three or four counter-attacks, and we could have finished the game.”

Newcastle’s defending in the final ten minutes was commendably resolute, underlining the strength of the spirit that continues to course through the dressing room.

Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark won a succession of important headers, but each and every Newcastle player ran themselves into the ground in the closing stages to keep Stoke out. On the handful of occasions they were found wanting, Darlow came to the rescue.

“I don’t like to see the team defending and not taking the chances that we had on the counter-attack, but if you cannot do that, then you have to defend in the way that we did in the last few minutes,” said Benitez. “That is the kind of team spirit that you are expecting from a team that are desperate to avoid relegation and stay in the Premier League.

“We have a lot of players who came in from the Championship, or who did not have a lot of experience in the Premier League. It is a young team, so showing that kind of spirit is what you have to do. We were playing against a team that were giving everything. They were pushing really hard, but we were defending really well.”

Benitez remains keen to make some early transfer progress, and is expected to meet managing director Lee Charnley later this week to discuss his options. However, for 24 hours, he was happy to put talk of potential incomings on hold in order to celebrate a welcome away win.

“We are trying to do our best (with transfers), and we will see what can happen,” he said. “But now it is about enjoying today and trying to concentrate on the next game. Everyone has to do his job.”