Chris Hughton says Newcastle United will be the team to beat in the Championship this season.
Hughton’s previously unbeaten Brighton and Hove Albion side lost 2-0 at St James’s Park on Saturday.
The result moved Newcastle up to fourth in the Championship.
Hughton – whose name was chanted by United fans late in the game – was the last man to guide the club out of the division.
United, under Hughton, won the division by a 12-point margin in 2009-10.
And he feels that Benitez has assembled a powerful team capable of challenging for promotion.
“One thing that Rafa has, even though he’s never managed at this level in this country, is great experience,” said Hughton.
“He’s bought players who will be top players in this division – all good types, quality, workmanlike – and I think they’re very strong at centre half.
“I think he’s built a team here that he thinks can get them promotion. And I’m sure they’ll go very, very close.”
A crowd of almost 50,000 was at St James’s Park to see Brighton beaten in the league for the first time since February.
I think he (Benitez) has built a team here that he thinks can get them promotion. And I’m sure they’ll go very, very close.Chris Hughton
It was the highest attendance of the day in England, and Hughton believes the stadium can again be a fortress for the club, beaten 2-1 at home by Huddersfield Town earlier this month.
“It’s a tough place, and I think it’ll be a tough place for every team that comes here,” he said.
“Possibly Huddersfield caught them at a good time when they were still trying to get into a bit of rhythm.
“But I think they’ll be very strong this season and I think it’ll be a very tough place to come.
“It doesn’t matter what division you’re in, there’s a support here who want to see the team winning.
“That’s why there’s still such a massive crowd here.
“It’s nice for this support, not for me (on Saturday), to see the team winning again.”
Asked if he heard his name being chanted, Hughton added: “Yes, I did and it’s always very nice.
“It’s a very special place for me. If we’re very close to where Newcastle are at the end of the season, we won’t be too far away.”
Newcastle have spent tens of millions of pounds in the transfer market this summer – the club has also banked more than £40million from the sales of Georginio Wijnaldum, Daryl Janmaat and others – and the outlay contrasts sharply with the minimal funds Hughton had in 2009-10.
“My time here was completely different,” said Hughton, whose Brighton side missed out on automatic promotion by goal difference last season.
“What I had, although we lost a lot of players, was a lot of stability.
“We didn’t sign so many players, but the players who did it for me were the players who were here and who decided they wanted to be here and do it.
“Rafa is completely different, he’s having to mould a team, but what he’s able to do is bring in very good players.”
Asked what the difference could be between success and failure in the Championship, Hughton said: “The obvious one is having enough of what you need in this division.
“I didn’t think Newcastle were great, but they were very efficient at what they do. They’ve got good people, good players on the ball and they also showed they can score from set plays.
“A lot of what you saw today in Newcastle is what’s needed in this division.
“This was a home performance from Newcastle.
“What you’ve got to be able to do is go away from home and be as efficient as Newcastle were.
“That’s the key in this division.
“We had to wait until January last season to win a game by more than one goal – that’s how tough this league is.”