RAFAEL BENITEZ is desperate for Newcastle United’s players to prove they can drive closer to Premier League safety – even if they can’t hand January signing Islam Slimani his debut until the end of next month.

Slimani is still to appear for the Magpies after joining from Leicester City on loan at the end of last month.

However, the thigh problem that prevented him from facing Crystal Palace and Manchester United has taken another turn for the worse and he is not expected back for two to three weeks.

Slimani will not be available for the trips to Bournemouth tomorrow and next Saturday at Liverpool. His appearance against Southampton on March 10 is also far from certain.

If he was unable to make any of those then there is a strong chance he will not be play until March 31 against Huddersfield; because the scheduled trip to Tottenham on March 16 will have to be rearranged if Spurs win their FA Cup replay with Rochdale.

Slimani was the striker Benitez wanted to provide the power in attack after agreeing to let Aleksandar Mitrovic move to Fulham and missing out on Feynenoord’s Nicolai Jorgensen.

But the 29-year-old, who has spent time in Algeria over the last fortnight working on his fitness, looks only likely to play in seven of the remaining Premier League matches because he will be ineligible to face Leicester too.

Benitez said: “When we signed Islam we knew he had a little bit of an injury but he has been training and doing well. He was just feeling the injury a little bit, so we made sure we were cautious with him.

“Last Friday I was watching him run in training and he looked fine. He was working with the physios and the fitness coach and he did everything that we asked.

“Then on Tuesday we were training and were working on possession, he was feeling really well but then he kicked the ball and just felt something. Things like that can happen.

“But he’s fine in himself, he’s positive and he’s telling me ‘oh, I feel fine, I can turn, I can spring’, but just with this gesture of kicking the ball he felt something at the top (of his thigh).”

Benitez insists the problem is not as serious as a tear, although he is still having to prepare Dwight Gayle, Joselu and Ayoze Perez for the upcoming fixtures.

“We think it could be two or three weeks for Islam, it just depends. It’s unlucky for us,” said Benitez. “We have two bits of good news, the first is that we just have Slimani and Gamez out, so our injury record is quite good.

“The second bit of good news is that team is doing well. If we can continue to play like this, we can win games and it means that Slimani can give us something more at the end of the season. So maybe he will be even more important to us.”

Newcastle travelled to Bournemouth for today’s game confident and fresh after the 1-0 victory over Manchester United 13 days ago.

That opened up a two-point gap to the relegation places and a further win could lift Newcastle into the top half of the Premier League.

Matt Ritchie struck the winner against United and that was his first goal since striking 12 in the promotion winning Championship campaign.

Benitez said: “It’s a vicious circle, as you say here. When someone is not scoring and they’re desperate to score, rather than relaxing they put more effort into it.

“Sometimes more effort is worse, rather than staying calm in front of goal.”

There was also a starring performance from Jamaal Lascelles against Manchester United at the heart of the defence and that has led to fresh talk of Chelsea interest in him ahead of this summer’s transfer window.

But Benitez said: “He signed a contract extension this year, so we’re calm, we’re happy with that and hopefully he can continue learning and growing and improving.

“He’s a player with all the potential to do well and I think it’s too soon (for him to move). He’s an important player for us and I’d be happy if he stayed with us for years. I was talking with him this week two or three times and we were not talking about anything else apart from Bournemouth and how to improve.”