After three months away, football at St James’ Park is finally set to return this Sunday – but not as we know it.
It will be odd to see an empty stadium and fake crowd noise filtered into our TV’s as we watch on Sky Sports from our sofas, however it will be welcome distraction from talk of a Saudi takeover – a saga that’s gone from extremely exciting to unbelievably exhausting.
Back to matters on the pitch, our first opponents come in the form of a high-flying Sheffield Utd side who must NOT be underestimated.
They looked flat and lacking in their usual levels of intensity and energy in their midweek draw at Villa Park, but with European qualification in sight and them still reeling from being robbed of a clear goal on Wednesday, I expect they’ll be bang up for this one and keen to get back on track.
For us, our last game saw us secure a big win at Southampton back in March, moving us 8 points clear of the bottom three. It felt significant and a huge step towards safety, but we’ll soon be dragged back into it if we allow complacency to creep in.
(4-2-3-1): Dubravka – Manquillo, Lascelles, Fernandez, Rose – Hayden, Shelvey – Lazaro, Almiron, Saint-Maximin – Joelinton.
At the back, Dubravka is fit again, with the three-month break allowing our undoubted player of the season a chance to fully recover from knee ligament damage suffered in our last league game.
He’ll be the first name on the team sheet, and looks likely to have Lascelles and Fernandez playing ahead of him, with the pair appearing to be Steve Bruce’s chosen partnership since reverting back to a four-man defence.
At right-back, Manquillo appears to be ahead of Yedlin in the pecking order and rightly so after several solid displays, while Rose is our only available left-back and will almost certainly start once again after extending his loan move from Spurs.
In midfield, Shelvey seems nailed on under Bruce and appears likely to be partnered by Hayden. Bentaleb featured in both training matches and scored a screamer in a behind-closed-doors game at St James’ Park a few weeks back, but he’s not done enough so far to earn a place in the starting 11 for me. As for the Longstaff’s, both have been nursing knocks, leaving Bruce with a limited number of midfield options ahead of this one.
Out wide, Saint-Maximin is nailed on starter and the man we’ll be hoping can unsettle a stubborn Sheffield Utd defence, while Almiron seems likely to play in a more favoured no.10 role once again should Bruce stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation that showed signs of promise before the break. Who plays on our right is tougher to predict, however. Ritchie or Lazaro? Given Ritchie has a knock and the Lazaro was brilliant in his last start in a more advanced role at West Brom, I think we’ll see the latter make his first start at St James’ Park.
Finally, up top. Joelinton has scored in 2 of our 3 training matches players over the past fortnight and is being backed by Bruce to finish the season strongly. Hopefully he can benefit from the break, the lack of pressure from fans and a 4-2-3-1 system that allows us to get more bodies up in support of him. Gayle got the nod in our last outing at St Mary’s, but he missed a boat load of big chances that day and seems to have yet another knock, while Carroll is fit again but most likely to be used as an impact sub after several months out.
Here’s ‘ones to watch’ in Chris Wilder’s Blades side:
Dean Henderson – The Man Utd loanee has been outstanding this season, keeping 11 clean sheets and being one of the Premier League’s most consistent goalkeepers across 2019/20.
Stevens / Baldock – The two marauding full-backs that give width to this solid yet adventurous Sheffield Utd side. Hopefully our pacey wide men can push them back and get in behind – not spend most of the game defending their forward runs!
John Fleck – The man who makes them tick and Wilder’s midfield dynamo. The diminutive Scot has impressed this season, pulling the strings in the middle and weighing in with 5 goals – making him their joint top scorer.
John Lundstram – A powerful runner with an impressive engine who’s made a habit of making good runs into the box this season.
While the likes of Martin Dubravka have had time to get back to full fitness over the three month break, there’s a few who’ve gone the other way.
Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle both started in our last Premier League game at Southampton back in March, but both are doubts for Sunday.
Both Longstaff’s have knocks and are almost certainly out after failing to feature in our last two training games, while Florian Lejeune also looks set to miss out after picking up an injury in our 2-0 win over Hull last weekend.
Paul Dummett is ineligible, being out of our 25-man squad, and the game also looks set to come too soon for Ciaran Clark, who is training again but not expected to be deemed match fit.
For the Blades, joint top scorer John Fleck and first choice centre-back Jack O’Connell could return after missing out in their 0-0 draw at Villa.
David McGoldrick is also expected to be passed fit, despite limping off in midweek.
The Blades have only lost ONCE away from home all season – and that was a 2-0 defeat at Anfield 6 months ago – highlighting just how tough they are to beat on their travels.
You’d fancy us when comparing the two sides on paper, but their mean away record and lofty league position have us coming in as the underdogs with the bookies, and we’d do well to remember that.
If we aren’t up for it or look unfit or half-hearted in comparison then I’d expect them to do a job on us, as they have done on many sides before this season.
That said, they did look rusty and lacking in their usual adventurous style and intensity in their 0-0 draw at Villa in midweek, so the fact this is their second game in 4 days could play into our hands.
A win would be brilliant, but I think we might have to settle for a point here in a game where two stubborn defences could come out on top.
Prediction: Newcastle 1-1 Sheffield Utd