Rafa Benitez, typically, was quick to praise his players after the game.
“It always depends on players,” said Benitez after Newcastle United’s 1-0 win over Huddersfield Town on Saturday.
But could any manager have got more out of this team?
Fortunately for Newcastle, the club’s Premier League status is dependent on Benitez, whose side have won their last three home games without conceding a goal.
Maybe three more points will be enough to secure safety.
Maybe, just maybe, United could finish in a comfortable mid-table position.
Benitez, for now, isn’t looking up the table, but many Newcastle fans are looking at the teams above their team in the division.
For some time now, Newcastle have been on the up.
There’s been a steady improvement since December when Jamaal Lascelles and Paul Dummett returned from injury.
United are tighter defensively – Huddersfield didn’t have a shot on target – and Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame offer a balance of precision and power in midfield.
Up front, Newcastle are a threat.
Benitez always felt that United would be better in the second half of the season.
Why? Because of his coaching. There’s been a collective and individual improvement over the past few months.
One player who has improved is Ayoze Perez, who scored the club’s 80th-minute winner against Huddersfield.
Perez isn’t everyone’s idea of a No 10 – and the forward has his critics – but if any player typifies the team ethic at Newcastle, it’s Perez.
The 24-year-old just doesn’t stop running, pressing and chasing lost causes.
Maybe it was fitting that this unselfish player got the goal.
Chances had come and gone in the first half.
United had patiently prodded and probed on a soggy pitch. They moved the ball well and dominated the ball, and Dwight Gayle had had three very good chances, but he couldn’t find the target.
The second half was scrappy, and Benitez sent on Christian Atsu, Islam Slimani and Isaac Hayden.
Perez played the ball out to Atsu on the left and continued his run to the box.
Atsu crossed for Slimani, making his long-awaited debut, and Huddersfield goalkeeper Jonas Lossl palmed the ball away to keep it from the on-loan striker.
It dropped for Kenedy, who rolled it to Perez a few yards from goal. And Perez, we know, doesn’t miss those kind of chances.
The relief was palpable – on and off the pitch.
Newcastle are almost there. The team’s so, so close to securing its Premier League status.
The players, like Benitez said, did their jobs. They were disciplined out of possession and patient with the ball.
They attacked as a team and defended as a team.
Benitez, unlike many of his top-flight counterparts, doesn’t have inviduals who can wins games on their own.
Instead, United must attack collectively. Again and again. They did that.
Who knows where Benitez could take the club if he can add the kind of individual talent we see elsewhere to this tight-knit collective.
Certainly, had Benitez got the players that he had needed last summer, then we probably would never have been talking about a relegation battle.
It’s a battle that the club has all but won.
And it’s what happens next off the pitch that will determine the club’s future.
Newcastle simply MUST keep Benitez at the club.