Newcastle United boss insists: Championship is not a two-horse race

Mohamed Diame hits Newcastle's winner at Burton Albion
Mohamed Diame hits Newcastle's winner at Burton Albion
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Newcastle United boss Rafa Benitez is adamant that the Championship has not become a two-horse race.

The Magpies claimed the Christmas No 1 spot with Saturday’s 2-1 win at Burton Albion, keeping them a point clear of Chris Hughton’s Brighton.

Third-placed Reading are nine points adrift of the Tynesiders, who next take on Sheffield Wednesday at St James’s Park on Boxing Day.

Burton manager Nigel Clough said Newcastle and Brighton were the league’s “two outstanding teams” after the weekend game at the Pirelli Stadium, where Dwight Gayle and Mohamed Diame were on targe.

But Benitez said: “I understand what he (Clough) says, but I don’t agree totally with him.

“I don’t agree totally, because I don’t think there are only two outstanding teams. Also there are Leeds and Derby, who are good teams. Reading are doing really well. Huddersfield Town are doing really well.

“So when you talk about six points difference, or nine points difference, it’s not massive. As I have said so many times before, we have seven games in April. So you have to be sure that you keep being consistent because the other teams are still winning and it’s still a long race until the end of the season.”

Asked if it was becoming a two-horse race, Benitez added: “No. Not for me. I’d like to be there at the top all of the time, but I’m sure it will be difficult because still the other teams are strong, and still they are winning.”

Newcastle’s 49-point haul is comparable to the points totals from the Magpies’ last two seasons in English football’s second tier.

Asked about the points total after 22 games, Benitez said: “I was not expecting anything. I was just convinced at the beginning of the season that we have a good team and we need to keep working and adjusting things.

“When we were winning lots of games in a row, still I was saying ‘we can improve’.

“And still the same. Still we can improve and have more adjustments which can allow us to perform even a little bit better in these games.”

Gayle’s 17th goal of the season, flicking home Matt Ritchie’s left-wing cross, had Newcastle ahead, but Lloyd Dyer equalised, heading home a cross from fellow wing-back John Brayford.

Newcastle regained the lead as Diame outmuscled Damien McCrory before finishing with aplomb, low into the bottom corner, from just inside the box.

Burton Albion: McLaughlin, Mousinho, McFadzean, McCrory, Brayford, Naylor, Palmer (Miller 89), Irvine, Dyer, Akins (Ward 78), O’Grady. Subs not used: Flanagan, Williamson, Bywater, Choudhury, Harness. Booked: Naylor, Irvine. Goal: Dyer 20.

Newcastle: Darlow, Yedlin, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett, Atsu, Shelvey, Hayden, Ritchie (Gouffran 85), Diame, Gayle. Subs: Lazaar, Anita, Perez, Mbemba, Sels, Mitrovic. Booked: Hayden. Goals: Gayle 16, Diame 34. Att: 6,665. Ref: Lee Probert