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Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez backs Chelsea to mount a serious title challenge

Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez during the Premier League match at Wembley Stadium, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday May 9, 2018. See PA story SOCCER Tottenham. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.
Image: Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez believes Chelsea have a serious chance of winning the title

Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez is backing his former club Chelsea to be part of a three-way battle for this season's Premier League crown.

The Spaniard, who spent six months in interim charge at Stamford Bridge, delivering Europa League success and a third-placed finish, is confident the Blues will be title contenders once again under new head coach Maurizio Sarri.

Benitez's Newcastle will welcome Chelsea to St James' Park on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, and when asked if they can win the league this year, he said: "I think so.

"Maybe at the moment, there are three teams that you could say that they are a little bit ahead of the others, for me - Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City - because of the level, the performances last year and the money they spent.

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"Then Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, they have to go back to things they were doing well. They have quality in the squad and they can compete, for sure.

"But if you have to pick three, I will pick these. They have enough quality to do well."

Benitez is well aware of Sarri's qualities, having seen the Italian follow him into the Napoli hot seat and guide the club to three successive top-three finishes.

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Maurizio Sarri
Image: Maurizio Sarri has been backed to lead a serious Chelsea challenge for the Premier League title

He said: "We did what we had to do. He did well, played good football and they had a very good group of players.

"We were an offensive team in Italy playing well, and he received this group and he carried on working with them and was doing well."

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Newcastle brought down the curtain on last season with a fine 3-0 win over Chelsea on Tyneside to secure a 10th-placed finish on their return to the top flight.

Benitez knows how much effort that took and a disappointing summer transfer window has left him preparing for another survival battle.

He said: "We finished 10th, but could have finished 15th or 17th. It was just one game, that's it.

"If we think in the city and at the club that we finished 10th and that's it, we are... No, we finished 10th because everything was really, really good. We cannot lose our focus."

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