I feared Sunday’s return to football at St James’ Park would be a drab affair and bore draw. How wrong I would prove to be!
The red card may have helped our cause, but it was brilliant to see us look fit, sharp and fully motivated to get the result, with us totally deserving what turned out to be our most convincing win of the season – and the first time we’ve scored three goals in a league match at St James’ Park in over a year.
A great start to life after lockdown, moving us 11 clear of the drop zone and allowing us to focus on a push towards the top 10 instead, but the games now come thick and fast, with Wednesday night’s visit of Aston Villa being followed by a FA Cup quarter final with Man City on Sunday.
With the latter match in mind, I’m hoping Bruce rotates here and makes the most of his five subs – not that we should be taking an Aston Villa side battling to stay up lightly. Especially when this is the club that made insensitive banners to mock our relegation to the second tier on TWO occasions in recent times..
Hopefully, whatever side Steve Bruce selects arrives with the same mentality they did on Sunday. Do that and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to stick the knife into an Aston Villa side second from bottom.
(4-2-3-1): Dubravka – Yedlin, Lascelles, Schar, Rose – Hayden, Bentaleb – Lazaro, Almiron, Joelinton – Carroll:
With us playing City on Sunday, THIS is the tough bit to predict.
Dubravka will almost certainly play, but who starts ahead of him is anyone’s guess if Bruce is planning to prioritise our shot at FA Cup glory over the weekend.
I have a feeling Schar could be handed some game time after he was given a cameo appearance on Sunday, but, then again, will Bruce break up a Lascelles / Fernandez partnership that’s helped us to THREE clean sheets on the spin since we moved to a four-man defence? Ideally no, but this could be a good chance for him to look at Schar in the new formation.
At right-back, Manquillo has been solid as a rock whenever he’s been called upon, so I think he could be saved for a battle with Raheem Sterling on Sunday. As a result, I think Yedlin will get the nod for this one – but he’ll have to do much better against Jack Grealish than he did in that 2-0 defeat at Villa Park earlier in the season.
In midfield, I expect Bentaleb to get a chance. Shelvey and Hayden complimented each other superbly on Sunday, but Bruce will surely preserve at least one of those ahead of the Man City game, so it would make sense if one is given a rest. Given Hayden’s supreme fitness levels and the fact Shelvey can be a passenger if he’s feeling below par physically, I can see the latter starting on the bench. Not only that, Bentaleb needs a chance to convince Bruce he’s worth signing permanently – and games like this give him the perfect chance to do exactly that.
In attack, I’m quite certain Lazaro will come in after impressing at West Brom in his last start, while Matt Ritchie seems unlikely to play twice in 4 days given he only just made Sunday’s win over Sheffield Utd. I can also see Saint-Maximin being saved for the City game given he holds the key to our hopes of unsettling Pep Guardiola’s side. With that in mind, it would not surprise me if we saw Almiron in a number 10 role and Joelinton down the left, making way for Carroll to make a rare start up top now he’s fit again and set to sign a new one-year deal.
Gayle and Muto will be pushing for minutes, and the latter could even play in a second striker role, but Bruce seems more likely to give Carroll a good hour if he’s deemed ready to start.
Here’s ‘ones to watch’ in Dean Smith’s struggling Villa side:
Jack Grealish – The visitors talisman, top goalscorer and key creator. If you keep him quiet, you tend to keep Villa quiet! If Yedlin starts, hopefully he contains him more than he did in the reverse fixtures earlier this season!
John McGinn – The all-action Scotsman is a summer target of Steve Bruce’s if you believe reports that emerged prior to talk of a Saudi takeover. A box-to-box midfielder with an impressive engine, an eye for a pass and uncanny knack of arriving into the box.
Keinan Davis – The powerful young striker has started both of Villa’s two games back so far and has looked a real handful. He’s still very raw, but could be an interesting battle between him and Jamaal Lascelles should he be given the nod again.
Both Longstaff’s look set to miss out again, despite Matty being back in training, while Bruce has also confirmed the game will come too soon for Florian Lejeune and Ciaran Clark.
Paul Dummett is ineligible once again, being out of Steve Bruce’s 25-man squad since January.
Right-back Frederic Guilbert and loanee Danny Drinkwater could return for the first time, but centre-back Bjorn Engels remains out.
We may not have quite as much to play for in the league, and could well have one eye Sunday’s big FA Cup tie, but any fringe players coming in should be motivated and eager to impress.
That could bode well if Bruce rotates as I predict, however this really is a huge game for Aston Villa – so I’d be worried for the Villains if we look more up for it than them here!
They look suspect at the back and are yet to click in attack since football returned, so they’ll have to be much better here to get the win they so desperately need.
I can see this one ending all square.
Prediction: Newcastle 1-1 Aston Villa