MIKEL MERINO has been challenged to prove he can become one of European football’s true midfield stars, even if he is not guaranteed his place at Newcastle United just yet.

The Spanish midfielder scored his first goal for the Magpies, the winner, against Crystal Palace nine days ago following his move from Borussia Dortmund in the summer.

Merino was a substitute that afternoon and hopes his match-winning impact will result in him reclaiming his place at Burnley tonight as Newcastle look to build on thhe promising start.

But Benitez, who took off Isaac Hayden against Palace, insists one goal doesn’t automatically mean a first team recall, particularly when he also has Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame battling for a centre-midfield berth.

Benitez said: “We played Jonjo and Mikel together in one of the games but the problem I have now is that in one game Hayden scored, and in the other one Merino scored so it is quite difficult.

“You can’t decide your team because someone scored or someone played one good game. It’s just the understanding between the players, the way that they complement each other.

“They both give you something different. Both, when we talk about Jonjo and Mikel, can pass the ball. But they don’t have the legs of Hayden.

“You need to find the balance. Some days will be important to have one or the other one, or maybe Diame, who was training really well during the week.

“It depends on each game, or the timing during the game. But can they play together? Yes. Is it a risk? No, it’s different. It depends on the game.”

Nevertheless Merino has made a huge impact at St James’ Park since switching from the Bundesliga. The initial loan was turned into a permanent arrangement for a fee in the region of £9m and that provides an indication of how quickly he impressed his manager.

Benitez said: “We knew that he was a good signing. We knew that it was a good price. When you were asking me ‘are you nervous about Merino?’ I always said stay calm because we knew that he was a great acquisition for us.

“Obviously players need to settle down and they need time and they have to be consistent. He has all the attributes to do well and be a good signing and maybe a bargain.”

Merino has still only made nine appearances for Newcastle, but he has seen his stock rise during that time, so much so that he has already been tipped to become a future Real Madrid of Barcelona player because of his nationality.

Benitez doesn’t want to even think about that and believes the young man needs to focus on making constant progress rather than being a flash in the pan.

The Newcastle boss said: “You have some good players that maybe sometimes you know about. But the majority of the teams are working really hard with their scout departments. 

“It’s not that you know and nobody else. Sometimes it’s true and you have to be quicker than the others. But everyone is working with a lot of information, with a lot of contacts. You can find someone, but it’s not easy.

“Obviously he is a young player that signed for Borussia Dortmund. So it’s not that they didn’t notice that he was a good player. After you can play well or not, but when you go to another country it depends on a lot of things that maybe you cannot control, and it doesn’t allow you to play at a level that you can play at. 

“Here he is happy, he is doing well. You have seen the talent. He is a good player. Can he play at another level? Yes. Is he ready? It depends on the people around him.”

Merino, an Under-21 international with Spain, is seen as a key option for Newcastle in the middle of midfield, although it could be that one day he is used further forward by Benitez.

Benitez said: “I think this would be more in a 4-3-3 formation. When I was talking with him at the beginning, I knew that he likes to play higher and go forward, and he scored two goals with Spain at the edge of the box. He can play there. 

“But do we need to change something when everything is going well? Some people say ‘you always play the same system’. But the system changes a little bit. It depends on if we play home or away, or if the other team plays long or short. 

“We change to 4-3-3, we changed to five at the back in some games. We can manage different things. But if something is going well, why would you change too much.

Whoever plays tonight at Turf Moor, Newcastle are looking to maintain the sort of standards and form that has seen them climb into the Premier League’s top seven. They are a point and a place above the Clarets, but Benitez will not be taking anything for granted.

He said: “We have had some games in which maybe we deserved even more, some games where we could have conceded, but we have chances in some games to get more points, so it could be even better.

“I am really pleased with our position, but still, I think we have to wait until January to be jumping because we are very happy. 

“January because we will have played against all the teams. We know that we have some top sides in November, December, so we have to be sure that we wait a little bit before starting to be too happy.”

But Benitez knows Burnley are a tough side under Sean Dyche, even if they have only won one of their matches at Turf Moor this season.

Benitez said: “I have read that it is a team in his image, so when you have a manager who has been there for a while and he is trying to sign the players he wants and manage them in the way that he wants, in the end, you have a team that knows what to do and they know what the manager manager wants, so I think it's great advantage.

“They are doing well, they are well-organised, they are in a good position in the table and they play with confidence, so it's always an advantage if you want to go and compete in every game.

“Hopefully, but still I think it will be difficult. It's an interesting thing that one year, you are really good at home and the year after, you are much better away. But it means also that they know the division and they know how to cope with the pressure when they play away. “It could be also the other teams know how they play at home and they are stronger, so hopefully we can be as strong.”