After three months away, Premier League football finally return to St James’ Park today!
Our opponents Sheffield United have already played this week, drawing 0-0 at Aston Villa on Wednesday night, but this will be the first team Steve Bruce has had to pick since that 0-1 win at Southampton back in March – a game which feels like a lifetime ago now!
With form before the break, injuries and his latest pre-match comments in mind, here’s the team I expect him to start come 2pm today:
(4-2-3-1): Dubravka – Manquillo, Lascelles, Fernandez, Rose – Hayden, Shelvey – Lazaro, Almiron, Saint-Maximn – Joelinton.
OUT – Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle?
IN – Valentino Lazaro and 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.
Up top, I expect Bruce to put his faith in Joelinton. He’s scored in 2 of our 3 training matches 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.