Rafa Benitez says staying in the Premier League is the be all and end all for Newcastle United – and more important than derby success.
But the club’s new manager is desperate for his team to kick-start their bid for Premier League survival with a win over 17th-placed Sunderland tomorrow.
Second-bottom Newcastle go into the game looking to end a run of six successive derby defeats.
A victory could also see the club climb out of the bottom three if Norwich City fail to beat West Bromwich Albion.
And Benitez – whose tenure at Real Madrid unravelled after November’s 4-0 El Clasico loss to Barcelona – is under no illusions about the game’s importance to the club and its fans.
“This is the game for the fans – it’s massive,” said Benitez. “I’m not too worried about that, I’m confident we can win, but the main thing is staying up.
I don’t care if we lose the derby and stay up. The main thing is to do the job and take the three points, because that will give everyone a good feeling, but the priority is staying up.Rafa Benitez
“I don’t care if we lose the derby and stay up.
“The main thing is to do the job and take the three points, because that will give everyone a good feeling, but the priority is staying up.”
The fixture could give United’s players the lift they need for the final eight games of a troubled campaign.
Asked if the derby had the power to shape the rest of the season, Benitez said: “I agree, but if you can me guarantee me that I lose the derby and stay up, I will take that.
“We will have more chances to win it, even if we lose the derby, but it will make it a lot more difficult.”
The derby is arguably the biggest since the infamous 1990 play-off meeting which was won by Sunderland.
At stake is a share of the Premier League’s new multi-billion pound TV deal, with each top-flight set to net in excess of £100million next season.
Asked about the game’s significance, Benitez said: “Everything will change a little bit next year.
“You know the feeling Newcastle fans have had for last six games as you lost the Barcelona game at Real Madrid?
“We have to change that, that’s my idea. I want to challenge, we want to close those stats.”
Benitez is also a veteran of many Merseyside derbies from his time at Liverpool.
Asked about his perception of fixtures between Newcastle and Sunderland before he took the job at St James’s Park, Benitez said: “Every derby is massive.
“If you go to Liverpool people always talk about Everton, in Madrid its Real and Atletico (Madrid), but it always depends on the fans.
“The fans in Newcastle, the local fans up here, are so good, you can feel the passion. Everyone I’ve spoken to tells me ‘you have to win.’
“It is not difficult to motivate players, the thing is to keep them calm enough to think during the game.”
Benitez is hopeful the club’s dismal derby record won’t play on his players’ minds.
“Maybe the British players and the ones who have played here for a long time will be thinking about this, and I will try to change that,” he said.
“The other players ... it is an important game because of our position in the table and they hear about the derby from our fans, but maybe it will not be a big difference.
“We will try to keep the players confident to try and make sure the approach the game in the right way, because it’s the derby it’s more important.
“We have to get three points, and that will may be the start of something special.”