COMMENT By Matt Farr

It’s business time for Rafa Benitez and Newcastle. The Championship promotion race is hotting up, and no side can afford to slip up in the remaining months of the campaign.

It is Newcastle that currently hold the advantage, peering down on the teams below them with their narrow one point advantage at the top of the table.

Each and every member of the Newcastle squad will have an important role to play in maintaining that lead between now and the end of the season, and Benitez will be keeping a very close eye on a few in particular.

The current competition at the top of the table means that the promotion race could well come down to one missed chance on goal, or one dropped point.

Therefore, every Newcastle player must be performing to the best of his ability to ensure that the Magpies earn safe passage back to the Premier League.

However, not every player is currently at that required level – in particular, Ayoze Perez.

Perez has appeared in all but one of Newcastle’s fixtures in the new year, but you can be excused if you failed to spot him on the pitch.

From Newcastle’s eight games in January and February, the 23-year-old has contributed just one goal and two assists.

It’s a fairly poor return, even before you take into account their opponents in those matches. Newcastle came up against three sides from the Championship’s bottom six, as well as a League One opponent in Oxford; but Perez offered little.

In fact, Perez played the full 90 minutes in his preferred shadow-striker role during the 3-0 defeat to Oxford in the FA Cup on January 28, which was an inexcusable result.

His overall record is better, with seven goals and five assists from 28 games in all competitions; but he appears to have downed tools since October.

The absence of attacking duo Mo Diame and Christian Atsu at the Africa Cup of Nations in recent weeks granted Perez with the perfect opportunity to take centre-stage, but he failed.

It can be difficult for a player constantly coming in-and-out of the side, as you struggle to build any real momentum in your performances, but Perez should still be offering a lot more.

Benitez has shown enough faith in the Spaniard to grant him 17 starts from a possible 28, and Perez should be returning the favour with more goals, more assists, and a better all-round contribution to his side.

Essentially, he needs to be more influential in the attacking-third, and not waste quite so many chances.

It’s a time where Benitez will be looking at his side and thinking, “These are the players I will want to take with me to the Premier League.”

At the moment, Ayoze Perez won’t be one of them.

He still has plenty of maturing left to do in England, but he needs to look at the bigger picture, and convince his manager that he is the type of player that he will want to keep around.

Benitez likes him, otherwise he wouldn’t pick him. But so far Perez simply isn’t justifying it.

In other Newcastle news, this attacking-midfielder is set to make his return for the club.

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