AS he settled back to watch Manchester City annihilate Burton Albion on Wednesday night, Rafael Benitez could have been forgiven for having a wry chuckle.

True, as a League One side taking on one of the best sides in Europe, Burton might well have been thrashed no matter what tactics they adopted at the Etihad Stadium.

But as a template for how not to line up against one of the Premier League’s big boys, Burton’s devil-may-care approach, with players pouring forward and leaving huge gaps for Manchester City’s midfielders to exploit, was just about the perfect exemplar.

Benitez would not have set his side up in a similar fashion, and as he prepares to lead Newcastle United into action at Chelsea tonight, the Magpies manager is in no mood to start making apologies for what looks certain to be another safety-first game plan.

He has been heavily criticised in some quarters for his defensive tactics in previous games against the top six, but aside from the Boxing Day defeat at Liverpool, Newcastle have been competitive in all of their matches against the Premier League’s big boys.

Despite Chelsea having scored at least three goals in four of their last five home games against the Magpies, Benitez is hoping that does not change tonight.

“Am I happy to go in every game and say, ‘Can we get a point, can we get three points’? No,” said the Newcastle boss. “But I have to do it. I know that I have to do it, and that’s it. That means I am not negative, that means I am realistic.

“The Manchester City game against Burton. What were you saying before the game? People were saying, ‘They have to play expansive football’. They played four at the back and they conceded nine goals. Why? Because the other team is much better, that’s it.

“If you know that, and then you approach the game the right way, your message to your players has to be the right one.

“You don’t say to the newspapers or the fans this and that because you have to say that - that would be worse. Because people would be thinking, ‘We can do this or that’ and then we cannot.

“If you cannot, you cannot. Be sure that you do the right things at the right time. It doesn’t mean we cannot win against Chelsea, we can. But everything has to be right. We have to do well, they have to make mistakes, and that’s it.”

Chelsea head into this evening’s game in fourth position in the table, but Maurizio Sarri’s side have displayed signs of vulnerability in the last couple of weeks, suffering a surprise home defeat to Leicester, failing to break down Southampton in a goalless draw, and losing the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final with Tottenham on Tuesday.

Sarri is in the middle of a January overhaul, with Cesc Fabregas having agreed to join Monaco and Alvaro Morata set to join him through the exit door at Stamford Bridge.

New signing Christian Pulisic cannot play until the start of next season, so while Newcastle might travel to London as long-priced outsiders, Benitez can see the potential for a shock.

“Can we beat Chelsea? Yes we can,” he said. “Why? Because we have a team that can compete against Chelsea and can win, if we do the right things. I know how good these players are, if they are right and do what they normally do.

“It will be very difficult because (Eden) Hazard on his own could make the difference. But if you do right, and he’s not at his best moment, and then they make mistakes, then you can win, obviously you can win.

“It’s not because they go and have a go, it’s because they have some good players and the others are making mistakes.

“Chelsea are a very good team and they know what they have to do, but they have some weaknesses. We know that. I know Sarri from Italy, so he knows us and we know them.”

Hazard tends to provide Chelsea’s X-factor, and with both Morata and Olivier Giroud out of favour, the Belgian is once again expected to line up as a central striker.

His scoring record against Newcastle is superb, and having spent seven months in charge at Stamford Bridge, Benitez has first-hand experience of the 28-year-old’s attacking talents.

“Is he the best player in the country? It’s difficult to say,” he said. “But he’s one of the best players that I have coached, yes.

“He has the ability to change the pace, he can change direction, he can score goals, he can assist. He’s one of the best I have coached.”

Newcastle are without Asian Cup duo Ki Sung-yueng and Yoshinori Muto, and also cannot call on Paul Dummett and Jonjo Shelvey, with the pair having visited a medical specialist in Spain earlier this week.

Federico Fernandez and Ciaran Clark have recovered from injury and are in contention for a starting spot, but Mo Diame is a doubt after picking up an injury and Kenedy cannot line up against his parent club.

“We’ll have to assess Diame,” said Benitez. “After the incident in the game (against Manchester United) he’s fine, but we’ll have to see if he’s involved.

“The specialist said they (Shelvey and Dummett) are doing well, but they will need some time.”