Rafael Benitez has told his benched Newcastle United players they could still be heroes in the club’s Premier League survival battle.
The Magpies have given themselves a chance of preserving their top-flight status with a return of four points from home games against Swansea City and Manchester City, but they travel to the Spaniard’s former club Liverpool on Saturday still deep in trouble.
Benitez made big decisions ahead of those two games, leaving £12million January signing Jonjo Shelvey sitting on the bench for both and leading scorer Georginio Wijnaldum among the substitutes against City on Tuesday evening.
However, the 56-year-old wants all his players ready to perform to their best wherever they start a game, just as he did during his time at Anfield.
He said: “Jonjo or Gini [Wijnaldum] when you talk about them not playing, their reaction has been good. They are key players, they are working hard and they have to compete, and that’s positive for the team as it brings the best from the team.
“I use the example of Vladimir Smicer. At Liverpool, he was not playing too many games and I said to the players who weren’t playing too many games, ‘You have to be ready and fit, you never know when you will be important’.
“And he was. He came in and he was massive for us in the Champions League final.
“Gini came on [against City] and he could have won the game in the last five minutes, so the players have to know how important they are because in the end, they can make the difference. They have to be ready.”
Benitez is held in warm affection on the red half of Merseyside after that famous 2005 Champions League success in Istanbul, but he faces a very different challenge this time around.
Newcastle remain two points adrift of safety with just four games remaining and have not won a league game at Liverpool since April 1994.
Benitez has been asked repeatedly how keeping the club up would rank alongside to Champions League glory, but he is reluctant to compare the two.
He said: “It would be massive for everyone and fantastic for me, but you can’t rank things. People ask me about Istanbul but it’s different.
“Staying up would be massive – and I’d be really pleased – and the beginning of something special for this club.”