By Harry Sykes

Alan Shearer has claimed Newcastle would not be fighting a relegation battle if Rafael Benitez had been appointed manager earlier in the season.

The former Liverpool and Real Madrid boss replaced Steve McClaren with 10 matches of the campaign remaining and Newcastle already locked in a fight to preserve their top-flight safety.

However, Benitez had been available after being sacked in January and BBC pundit and Newcastle legend Shearer believes he should have been hired by the Magpies at the start of the year.

Newcastle held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw on Tuesday night after going a goal down, which followed their 3-0 win over Swansea at the weekend.

“They should have got Rafa in a bit earlier and I don’t think we would be in the position we are now,” Shearer told Radio Five Live after the match. “It’s taken Benitez a while to know his players, to understand his players. [Alexander] Mitrovic is out, [Jonjo] Shelvey is out, they’re out for a reason, they’ve not given enough to the team.”

Newcastle have now taken four points from their last two Premier League matches to give a major boost to their hopes of top flight safety.

“Certainly on tonight’s evidence, and on Saturday’s, there’s now a togetherness,” Shearer added on Radio Five Live. “The fans appreciate now that the players are giving everything.

“They’ve given themselves an opportunity – three points on Saturday and a point tonight which is not a disaster. On tonight’s evidence, the players are certainly with Benitez.”

Newcastle remain in 19th position in the table but they have narrowed the gap on 17th-placed Norwich to two points and they are just one adrift of Sunderland, who have a game in hand on their north-east rivals.

City remain in third place in the Premier League but they are a distant 12 points behind leaders Leicester and seven points behind Tottenham in second.

In other Newcastle news, Benitez has explained why he is so impressed by Moussa Sissoko, who skippered the side for a second consecutive match against City.