If we were in no mans land in the league then I’m sure we’d play a strong side here, but with survival and managing our thread-bare squad the main focus, I can see Rafa making plenty changes here.
A few likely starters may highlight our frustrating lack of depth (Joselu up top and Manquillo at full-back?), but it could be a great occasion for the likes of Sean Longstaff, Florian Lejeune and Freddie Woodman – and a vital moment to impress for the likes of Murphy and Kenedy.
With injuries and rotation in mind, here’s the team I can see Rafa starting:
(4-2-3-1) Woodman – Sterry, Lejeune, Clark, Manquillo – Hayden, Shelvey – Kenedy, Longstaff, Murphy – Joselu.
Starting at the back, Woodman seems nailed on for this one. Dubravka will get a rare rest, Darlow is injured and Elliot is up for sale – so this will be the perfect chance for the England U-21 international to impress and potentially help himself secure a much needed loan move away.
At full-back, Yedlin took a bad knock against Man Utd in midweek so I doubt he’ll be risked, so U-23 regular Jamie Sterry could well come in at right-back. On the other side, we don’t exactly have natural Paul Dummett cover, so Javier Manquillo looks likely to fill in once again here.
In the middle of defence I can see Lascelles and Schar being rested, with Rafa also confirming that Fernandez won’t be risked. With Clark back from injury (has trained over the past few days) I can see him starting, whilst this also seems to be the perfect comeback game for a certain Florian Lejeune.
In the middle of the park we’re hardly blessed with options. Ki is at the Asian Cup and Diame won’t play after sustaining a hip injury on Wednesday night, leaving Hayden and Shelvey – with the latter in need of game time to regain some match fitness. Ahead of those two (or in a midfield two) will then almost certainly be Sean Longstaff – the top U-23 talent who’s been waiting for his big first-team chance ever since impressing over pre-season.
Out wide I’d expect Murphy to get a rare chance to impress Rafa at St James’ Park, with it also being an opportunity for Kenedy to put in a much needed confidence-boosting performance – allowing Ritchie and Atsu to be rested.
Up top it’s almost certainly going to be Joselu. Rondon will be rested for next Saturday’s trip to Chelsea, Muto is now away on international duty with Japan and Sorensen won’t be getting his big chance just yet, with him playing (and scoring) in the U-23’s win at Sunderland yesterday.