Newcastle United got the competitive game that Rafa Bentez had wanted in Spain – and his players have the bruises to prove it.
Royal Antwerp came from behind to hold Benitez’s side to a 1-1 draw in Murcia yesterday.
Now Benitez can only hope that the club’s players return from international duty unscathed.
Islam Slimani, yet to play a game for the club, watched the match from a seat behind United’s dugout. Around 1,000 supporters all but filled the stand on the opposite side of the pitch.
Slimani is expected to make his comeback from the thigh injury which has sidelined him since he joined the club while on international duty with Algeria.
Benitez admitted ahead of the game that it’s “not ideal”, though any minutes on the pitch, barring a setback, would bring Slimani closer to his long-awaited Premier League debut for United.
Benitez is now focused on Huddersfield Town’s visit to St James’s Park on March 31.
The game against Antwerp, played over 135 minutes at a chilly and windswept Pinatar Arena in San Pedro del Pinatar, was essentially a fitness exercise.
It lacked the intensity and pace of a Premier League game, but there was an edge to it, and several tackles made Benitez wince.
Newcastle dominated all three 45-minute periods, though they didn’t make their possession count.
Joselu and Jonjo Shelvey had early chances before Mikel Merino shot straight at goalkeeper Sinan Bolat after Matt Ritchie pulled the ball back for him.
United, set up with Atsu partnering Joselu up front, worked the ball down the flanks, and their goal game in the 40th minute. Chancel Mbemba delivered a ball forward for Ritchie, who chipped the advancing Bolat.
At the other end of the pitch, Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka had little to do.
Jonjo Shelvey didn’t reappear after the break – Benitez sent on Jamaal Lascelles, Isaac Hayden and Ciaran Clark – and United couldn’t add to their advantage in the second period.
Benitez made a number of changes for the final 45 minutes, and the first thing goalkeeper Nathan Harker had to do on his unexpected debut was to pick the ball out of his net.
The goal, however, wasn’t 19-year-old Harker’s fault. A mistake at the back let in Alexandar Corryn, who tucked the ball away.
Newcastle’s other debutant was Victor Fernandez, and the winger combined well with fellow substitute DeAndre Yedlin on the right.
Fernandez, called up from the Under-23 squad along with Harker, wasn’t overawed.
Gayle – who had a shot saved by substitute goalkeeper Kevin Debaty early in the period – hadn’t seen much of the ball.
However, a foul from Jelle Van Damme on Ayoze Perez saw him take the ball for a penalty, but his effort was well saved by Debaty.
The result, however, was largely irrelevant. Benitez got the game he wanted and his players got the minutes they needed.
There weren’t any injuries, though a few left the field with bruises.
The only thing Newcastle didn’t get was particularly warm weather, though the temperatures were far lower on a snowy Tyneside.
Benitez must now wait the best part of two weeks before he gets his squad back together for the pivotal Huddersfield game.
The bruises from this game should be long gone by then.