MIKE ASHLEY returns from holiday this week and is looking to make progress on two fronts, by nailing down Rafa Benitez to a one-year contract extension and striking a deal with one of the parties interested in buying Newcastle United.

The uncertainty and frustration being felt around the Tyneside outfit was apparent again at St James’ Park on Saturday when Blackburn Rovers, of the Championship, held the Magpies to a 1-1 draw in the third round of the FA Cup.

There were boos at times and further anti-Ashley chants given the manner of the performance against Rovers because Newcastle lacked the desire and urgency to deliver a fourth-round spot until the latter stages when they had fallen behind.

Benitez made his feelings clear in terms of his selection, having made eight changes to his previous Premier League side, and his team was full of fringe players lacking confidence on the first team stage.

And the situation off the pitch is not helping, even though the Spaniard continues to avoid talking about his own contract situation and the prospect of signing players during the window.

Ashley is reluctant to invest in the squad which has had very little spending over the last few windows while he works on trying to sell. That scenario is also why Benitez has refused to pen new terms because he wants to know the club matches his own ambitions.

That is why Benitez is understood to have been offered a shorter one-year extension to the contract that is due to expire in the summer, with supporters fearing in the current climate he will walk away and take on another managerial challenge.

The fear is that he will still resist committing to the new contract while the takeover talks continue and that is not helping the performances on the pitch, and neither is Ashley’s ongoing attempts to sell.

Former Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon remains the front-runner of four interested groups. His letter to Ashley was deliberately leaked to the media to outline the seriousness of the bid.

In the letter he described how they “share a serious determination to finalise the agreement” in the new year and Kenyon’s group of investors are viewed as the “best fit” by Ashley.

The hope is that a takeover can be concluded “as soon as possible” and that is likely to mean Benitez will wait before he signs a new deal, or at least he is giving some encouragement or certainty from the club’s would-be new owner.

He is still waiting to hear when he will have some new players on board, having had targets lined up last month in the hope of having deals over the line early in the window. He has most recently been linked with deals for Sunderland’s Josh Maja, West Ham’s Andy Carroll and Marseille’s Cliton N’Jie having not been delivered Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron as yet.

Benitez’s relatively small squad is trying to cope with a relegation fight, FA Cup football and, even, a Checkatrade Trophy challenge.

Tomorrow night Newcastle’s Under-21s will be in action against Sunderland’s first team in an intriguing knock-out fixture that is expected to draw in a big crowd.

Benitez had to select a team to face Blackburn in the FA Cup with the Checkatrade Trophy date in mind, while Friday’s under-23s game against Sunderland is likely to have given an insight into who might play at the Stadium of Light tomorrow.

Prolific striker Elias Sorensen didn’t face Blackburn, while the talented Connor Roberts played Friday instead. Benitez can name two over 21s in his squad if he wants to and he insists he will not get carried away by who the opposition is tomorrow.

On the evidence of Saturday’s draw with Blackburn, Benitez could do with handing more football to some of his first team players because of the manner of their performances.

The likes of Jacob Murphy, Kenedy and Joselu all disappointed when it was their chance to prove they have what it takes to hold down a starting spot. None of those impressed.

“When you have players in these kind of games, where they have not been playing, then at least they have to try and I think they tried,” said Benitez.

“Confidence is something you have to keep going and searching for. That’s the only way.

“I can give them confidence, training every day and talking with them. At the end of the day it depends how games go. We have to keep going. On a day like this I had to make substitutions to try to save the game. They have to perform and that’s it.”

In Murphy’s case he has struggled to live up to his £10m price-tag since moving from Norwich City and he looked well short of the promising winger that many feel has the potential to go on to become an international.

Benitez said: “We have to keep working with him, you can see the prices in the market so I think we are still short in terms of how much we have spent so we have to keep going and working with him.  "All of them on the pitch who had not been playing (had an opportunity), they have to decide what commitment they show and I think they did that. 

“Murphy still has the potential and I hope (he will fulfil it). You have to play well to play more games, that is the circle that players find themselves in.”

It was the fifth game in a row Newcastle have failed to win at St James’ Park. To have made eight changes backfired.
Benitez said: “A replay is bad news. I am disappointed because we have to play another game. At home we have to try to finish and we didn’t play at the level we expected. I was pleased with the reaction. It is now another situation we have to manage, use more players, more risk. We tried and they pushed hard. You could see them running for every single ball. Overall the reaction was good in the final minutes and I will take that as a positive.”