Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez was full of praise for defender Grant Hanley, who returned to the side in place of the injured Ciaran Clark for the game against Birmingham.

The defender kept a clean sheet in the goalless draw and didn't look out of place filling in for the highly-rated Clark, who is currently sidelined with a knee injury.

Newcastle United v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship

"I knew he would do well, because he has been training really well right the way through," Benitez ​said after the draw.

"Even when he was not involved, he was always positive and trying to help his team-mates. He is someone who really talks in defence. It was not easy for him, because their striker is really strong, but he did well."

grant hanley

Rafa's side are top of the league by a point and Birmingham boss Gianfranco Zola has backed them to do the job, saying: "They will go up. They have quality and a very good coach. They have everything you need. 

"When I look at their team, I think they will go up 100%, for sure. I hope that too, because they are a good side."

Birmingham City v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship

Benitez, in typical Rafa fashion, played down the praise by saying: "Gianfranco is a good friend. It was nice for him to say that, but there is still eight games to go."

Seven points above the play-off places and with eight games to go, promotion straight back up to the Premier League looks quite likely for Benitez's Newcastle, who beat Tottenham 5-1 in their most recent Premier League game.

Newcastle United v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

The Magpies were pretty disappointing during their Premier League campaign and ended up on the wrong end of a few routs themselves. Benitez joined the club fairly late when their fate looked pretty much set, so this time round ought to be quite different.

The Magpies did spend in the summer but were able to bring in large sums of money through the sale of Gini Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko. Keeping their current crop of players is something that the club will have in mind, meaning winning the Championship outright carries extra importance due to the money that it will provide.