Rafa Benitez says he will fight to keep Ayoze Perez at Newcastle United – if he stays on as manager.
Perez netted a hat-trick in last weekend’s 3-1 win over Southampton.
The strikes took the forward’s Premier League goal tally for the season to 10.
Perez – who also scored the club’s winner against Leicester City this month – said that he would face a “difficult decision” in the summer given the interest in him from clubs in England and Spain.
“There are going to be options,” said the 25-year-old.
“That means I have done something well, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to leave 100%. It’s going to be a difficult decision. It depends on a lot of things.”
Benitez – who is discussing his own future with the club’s hierarchy – hopes that Perez will stay at the club.
“I do not see any problem now,” said United’s manager.
“Finish the season, see what happens, and if someone comes (for Perez), deal with that.
“If someone comes see where we are, but I think Ayoze could be fine if we do the right things and he’s happy, because we can do the right things.”
Perez, signed from Tenerife as an unknown five years ago, was also the club’s leading scorer last season with 10 goals in all competitions.
Asked if he would fight to keep Perez if he signs a new deal, Benitez said: “Yeah, he’s an important player for us.”
Perez stuck by Perez when his performances came under scrutiny in the first half of the season.
“I’m the first one to criticise Ayoze,” said Benitez.
“Why? Because he has to be more consistent, and he has the potential. You cannot criticise a player who cannot give you more. But Ayoze is one that we know he can do well, he can do better, and he has room for improvement.
“When I’m telling him to change this or that, he knows.
“Maybe sometimes he’s not happy, but always you remember the teacher who pushes you harder, not the one who was always nice. You have to push them and find the balance. He’s OK, because he’s getting better.”