Newcastle United stunned the Premier League champions on the pitch at St James’s Park tonight – as Miguel Almiron headed to Tynreside to complete a £20million move.
Benitez’s side came from behind to beat title-chasing Manchester City 2-1 thanks to goals from Salomon Rondon and Matt Ritchie and move five points clear of the relegation zone.
And the result could prove to be as important to the relegation-threatened club as the 1-0 success over Manchester United just under a year ago which propelled the team up the table.
Almiron’s arrival, which came after Benitez admitted he might not see out his contract, could prove just as significant.
The win was United’s first over City since the 2005-06 season.
While Almiron was crossing the Atlantic for the move, which is subject to a medical and the 24-year-old agreeing personal terms, Benitez’s side put in an extraordinary performance after going behind with just 25 seconds on the clock.
The game kicked off after news broke of the imminent arrival of Almiron after Atlanta United accepted Newcastle’s bid.
Fans, however, were sceptical. They had been planning protests against owner Mike Ashley, who was not at the game. And supporters still held up posters, and chanted against Ashley, at St James’s Park, where Benitez made seven changes to the team knocked out of the FA Cup by Watford at the weekend.
A glance at the two starting XIs – and benches – told its own story before the game.
United’s squad has been assembled at a fraction of £700million-plus cost of City’s playing staff.
Benitez named Sean Longstaff in his team and Callum Roberts on the bench along with Kenedy, who failed to impress in the cup.
Longstaff, 21, would go on to play a crucial part in the victory.
Things started badly for Newcastle – then got better and better.
A deflected ball was delivered in from the right and David Silva, as he slipped, headed it to the oncoming Sergio Aguero and took out goalkeeper Martin Dubravka – Benitez felt it was a foul – at the same time. Fans reacted with anti-Ashley chants.
Newcastle struggled to get the ball off a pedestrian City, though Ayoze Perez shot wide at the other end of the pitch after taking the ball off Danilo.
United, time and again, hacked the ball clear as the visitors kept coming back at them. Benitez’s four-man midfield was sat on top of his five-man defence for much of the first half. Newcastle didn’t fold.
Christian Atsu, set up by Rondon, had a shot deflected over, and Fabian Schar denied Silva with a goal-line block before the break.
City, again, controlled the ball, but there were a few bright moves from Newcastle on a bitterly cold night.
Dubravka beat away a fierce shot from Silva in the second half, and the second goal just wouldn’t come for City.
Guardiola was looking increasingly unhappy on the bench, and he was even unhappier in the 66th minute when Rondon scored from just outside the six-yard box following a failed clearance from his team.
Then, with just over 10 minutes left Longstaff was bundled over by Fernandinho, and Ritchie, after a long delay, swept the resulting penalty past Ederson.
Newcastle held out to claim all an impressive win and climb up to 14th place in the league.
The night turned to be about points – not protests.
NEWCASTLE UNITED: Dubravka; Yedlin, Schar, Lascelles, Lejeune, Ritchie; Perez (Manquillo, 90), Hayden, Longstaff, Atsu, (Kenedy, 86); Rondon. Subs not used: Woodman, Clark, Murphy, Fernandez, Roberts.
MANCHESTER CITY: Ederson, Walker, Danilo (Gundogan, 83), Stones, Sterling, Ageuro, Laporte, De Bryune (Silva, 65), Sane (Jesus, 73), Silva, Fernandinho. Subs not used: Muric, Mahrez, Otamendi, Foden.
Goals: Aguero 1, Rondon 66, Ritchie 80 (pen)
Bookings: De Bruyne 17, Sterling 34, Perez 54, Schar 72, Fernandinho 90
Referee: Paul Tierney (Lancashire)