Rafa Benitez reacts to Grant Hanley's performance on his return to Newcastle's starting XI

Rafa Benitez praised Newcastle United Grant Hanley '“ after he ably filled Ciaran Clark's boots.

Grant Hanley takes on Clayton Donaldson
Grant Hanley takes on Clayton Donaldson

Hanley was handed a rare start in the absence of Clark, who is sidelined with a knee injury.

The 25-year-old, signed from Blackburn Rovers last summer, played well against Birmingham City’s Lukas Jutkiewicz in Saturday’s goalless draw at St Andrew’s.

And United manager Benitez was also pleased with his organisation skills.

“I knew he would do well, because he has been training really well right the way through,” said Benitez.

“Even when he was not involved, he was always positive and trying to help his team-mates.

“He is someone who really talks in defence. It was not easy for him, because their striker is really strong, but he did well.”

The result left Championship leaders Newcastle one point ahead of second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion.

And Birmingham manager Gianfranco Zola has backed the club to see the job through.

“They will go up,” said Zola. “They have quality and a very good coach. They have everything you need.

“When I look at their team, I think they will go up 100%, for sure.

“I hope that too, because they are a good side.”

Benitez, however, is reluctant to look beyond United’s next game, the April 1 home fixture against Wigan Athletic.

Asked about Zola’s comments, Benitez said: “Gianfranco is a good friend. It was nice for him to say that, but there is still eight games to go.”