RAFAEL BENITEZ has warned Newcastle United's promotion rivals that they face an uphill battle to deprive them of an automatic promotion place in the Championship.

Huddersfield Town and Leeds United still harbour hopes of overhauling leaders United or second-placed Brighton, but Benitez is not concerned.

Was he watching the chasing clubs?  "No, it depends on us," he said. "If we do what we have to do and keep winning games, it will be difficult for them.”

Newcastle’s latest challenge comes today at Birmingham, who lie six points outside the relegation zone but could be boosted by the return of striker Clayton Donaldson after a three-month injury absence.

The Magpies have won 13 away games in the Championship this season - two more than at St James' Park - and are the favourites today. "I don’t mind if we are home or away if we play at the level we normally play," Benitez said. "It’s strange, but hopefully we can improve at home.

"Now we have a tough game at Birmingham because they are changing their system, with four or five at the back as Gianfranco Zola tried to find solutions to their problems. They look more solid now."

Keeper Karl Darlow believes the squad are ready for the latest challenge after an uninterrupted week's training following the defeat by Fulham.

He said: "The manager has been going through the different tactics and basically we're getting that game out of our system.

"We didn't play well, so it was one of those game where we've just got to get it out of our heads. Those points are gone and we've just got to make sure we don't drop any more.

"Mentally we've been very strong throughout the season. We've picked up points throughout the whole campaign and we've got to continue that and keep on doing what we have been doing.

"We've been focusing on the next game and getting through that one, so it's very much as case of 'Deal with Birmingham, then take it from there'."

Meanwhile, Benitez is not tempted to keep Florian Thauvin at United, despite the winger's call-up to the France squad.

The manager has kept in touch with Thauvin, who is on a season-long loan at Marseille and looks certain to join them permanently in the summer, but he rules out a return.

Benitez said: "We knew when he was here that he was a good player, but sometimes a player is not settled in a city or a club and has to go to another place where maybe he is more comfortable and can play at his level.

"With him, it was very clear from day one. We knew what was best for both. Now I'm happy because he is going with the national team and that is good news for him."