Rafael Benitez admitted he could not have dreamt Newcastle would smash through the Premier League’s 40-point barrier with five games to spare.
The Magpies cemented their unlikely place in the top 10 with a 2-1 comeback victory over Arsenal at St James’ Park on Sunday to ease themselves to 41 points and 13 clear of the drop zone.
That seemed a highly unlikely prospect back in December when a 1-0 away defeat by the Gunners saw the team complete a run of nine games which yielded just a single point.
Rafael Benitez could not have dreamt Newcastle would reach 40-points with five games left
Manager Benitez, who celebrates his 58th birthday on Monday, said: ‘We were not expecting to be in the top 10, but at the same time I said we were dreaming, but we were awake and thinking that we could do it.
‘If you see the way that the players were working for every single ball – and the fans and all the staff – everybody was pushing in the same direction and that is the key when you want to succeed in something.’
A first victory in 12 against Arsenal, who had won the last 10 meetings, and a first home success over the Gunners since December 2005, was secured by Matt Ritchie’s 68th-minute strike, although it came courtesy of a concerted fightback.
Alexandre Lacazette had fired the visitors, who have not collected a single point on the road since the turn of the year, into a richly deserved 14th-minute lead, only for Ayoze Perez to restore parity with his third goal in as many games 15 minutes later, if distinctly against the run of play.
Alexandre Lacazette had fired the visitors ahead but Ayoze Perez scored an equaliser
Matt Ritchie scored the winning goal to guarantee Newcastle’s Premier League status
The win effectively guaranteed Newcastle’s top-flight status and – asked where that ranked in his career – Benitez said with a smile: ‘You want me to say that it’s like the Champions League (with Liverpool) in 2005!
‘It’s a great achievement. The difference is that when you win titles, especially if it’s a cup, there are fewer games or it’s just a final.
‘When you achieve something like that, it’s during the whole season and you can see the team progressing and improving, so I’m really pleased to see players playing every week much better, learning about what to do in difficult situations.
‘It’s a great achievement for everyone, not just for me – for everyone.’
If Benitez was a happy man, opposite number Arsene Wenger left Tyneside not quite believing what he had witnessed.
Benitez oversaw a first victory in 12 against Arsenal, who had won the last 10 meetings
He said: ‘It’s a bit ‘the story of the season’. We had 70 per cent of the ball, were 1-0 up and in the end, you lose 2-1 and you wonder how you can lose this game. That’s what happened today.
‘I think the game could have been over at half-time. We conceded two goals from nowhere.
‘In the second half, I feel that some players paid a little bit physically having played the game on Thursday night in Moscow. We came back on Friday morning late.
‘Overall we played with a good spirit, but with a bad result. We have to deal with that, unfortunately.
‘It’s very disappointing because I feel it’s very harsh to swallow a defeat like that and the way we conceded three points today.’