Our third home game within the space of a week, but this one’s the big one. An FA Cup quarter final against Manchester City.
It’s a huge shame this one has to be played behind closed doors, with this our first chance to make a cup semi-final for 15 years and an occasion which could’ve built a memorable atmosphere inside St James’ Park.
That said, the players will be aware of our desperate search for a trophy and the fact a trip to Wembley awaits the winners.
Guardiola confirmed before their midweek defeat at Chelsea that THIS is their “final” and the one game they want to win. A daunting message, but I doubt there’ll be a man inside St James’ Park more keen to win than Bruce.
After all, cup glory could be the only way he keeps his job on Tyneside should a Saudi takeover finally receive approval – or at least the dream of a Geordie manager who hasn’t seen the club win a major honour in his lifetime.
(5-2-2-1): Darlow – Manquillo, Schar, Lascelles, Fernandez, Rose – Shelvey, Bentaleb – Saint-Maximin, Almiron – Carroll:
Dubravka is normally nailed on, but Darlow has played in all of our cup games so far – and Steve Bruce seemed more than happy to continue with the former Forest stopper when the Slovakian was injured before the break and expected to miss out on this one. If Bruce is a man of his word, it seems highly likely that Darlow gets the nod here!
On the subject of Bruce being a man of his word, he stated a few weeks back that “we won’t be returning to five at the back”, but many feel he may have to here – especially if industrious duo Hayden and Ritchie fail late fitness tests. With that in mind, Schar could well come in alongside Lascelles and Fernandez, with Manquillo and Rose filling in either side as wing-backs.
Dummett is eligible for the FA Cup, so could be used as a left-sided centre-back (which could come in useful when we have no other left-footed options fit!), but it would be a tough ask to throw him in against such top opposition after three months out.
In midfield, it’s not exactly the pairing you’d want when we’ll likely be chasing the ball for 80% of proceedings, but it seems likely that Shelvey and Bentaleb start if Hayden does miss out. The Longstaff’s are said to be back in training, but, like Dummett, I don’t see Bruce throwing either in against such tough opposition after so long away.
I could then see Almiron and Saint-Maximin being the two men deployed in wide / attacking areas, being tasked to get back into defensive positions and then burst forward with the ball and support the lone striker once we get a chance to counter.
Up top I am struggling to pick who Bruce will go for. On the one hand, Joelinton seems to be our fittest striker and showed patches of renewed confidence against Villa, Carroll bagged a brilliant assist and could not only battle hard but hold the ball up well, while Gayle will also be pushing for a start, with his well taken goal in midweek and mobility on the counter / ability to press making him a decent option – not that he’s ever been suited to a lone striker role.
My head says it’ll be Joelinton, but I’ve got a feeling Bruce will go with Carroll from the off here – a player whose ability to hold the ball up, bring Almiron / Saint-Maximin into play for a counter or offer an outlet from deep (should the defence pump it long) could come in handy.
Here’s ‘ones to watch’ in Pep Guardiola’s scintillating City side:
Kevin De Bruyne – I could’ve named practically all their senior players given their incredible strength in depth, but the one man we must stop is KDB. The best player in the Premier League for me and a player who’ll find that killer pass, burst past our defensive lines or smash one into the top corner if we give him an inch.
Nicolas Otamendi – An odd choice you may think, but with Fernandinho suspended, Stones having only just returned to training and City short on CB’s as a result, the rash Argentine could be our biggest hope of getting a result! He dives into tackles that aren’t their to be won and could struggle with the pace of Saint-Maximin or the power of a Joelinton or Carroll. One to target IF he starts!
Raheem Sterling – The winger’s pace can be devastating, but it’s his movement, ability to get into great areas in the box and eye for goal that stands out the most for me. Whether it’s Rose or Manquillo who’s tasked to track him on Sunday, they won’t be able to switch off for a second.
Gabriel Jesus – With Sergio Aguero ruled out (the man who’s scored 15 goals in 13 games against us!), the young Brazilian will almost certainly start. His record when he plays is impressive, however I’m sure all of our centre-backs would rather square up against him than the free-scoring Argentine who seems to score a couple every time he plays us!
Isaac Hayden and Matt Ritchie are set for late fitness tests after limping off in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa.
Both Longstaff’s are back in training and “might” make the squad, while Florian Lejeune and Ciaran Clark remain out.
Paul Dummett is ELIGIBLE for this one, with him only out of Bruce’s squad for Premier League games, however it remains to be seen if the NUFC boss feels he’s ready to be thrown straight into the mix after three months away from competitive action.
Sergio Aguero has been ruled out with a knee injury, while Fernandinho will miss the game through suspension.
Phil Foden, Joao Cancelo, John Stones and Eric Garcia are set to be assessed over the weekend after all four missed their midweek defeat at Chelsea.
Hopefully the latter duo miss out so Pep is forced to start Otamendi at centre-back!
I thought we MIGHT just be able to pull off an upset if we had 52,000 screaming Geordies behind us, but I’m struggling to see how we find a way through without true home advantage.
Saint-Maximin will be key to any success we may have, with us needing to see him at his brilliant best to unsettle this City side, however we’ll also have to defend superbly at the other end to keep out the likes of KDB, Sterling, Jesus, the two Silva’s, Mahrez and more!
Steve Bruce has proved me wrong a few times already this season, so let’s hope he does it again here!
I can’t see it, but you just never know with NUFC…
Prediction: Newcastle 1-3 Man City