It barely feels like a minute ago we were playing down in Bournemouth, but another matchday has arrived – and with that comes another attempt to predict the starting 11 Steve Bruce will pick today!
There will be a few enforced changes, with Sean Longstaff (hamstring) ruled out, however it remains to be seen whether Jamaal Lascelles (ankle) and Joelinton (calf) will make it, with both being described as doubts on Friday – only to be spotted taking part in full training over the weekend!
With form, fitness and freshness in mind, here’s the side I’m backing Bruce to go with come 2pm today along with an explanation for my selection below:
OUT – Manquillo, Bentaleb, S Longstaff, Joelinton?
IN – Rose, Hayden, Lazaro, Carroll?
(4-4-2): Dubravka – Krafth, Lascelles , Fernandez, Rose – Lazaro, Hayden, Shelvey, Saint-Maximin – Gayle, Carroll.
Dubravka will start in goal, but Bruce may have to make a late decision on one or two defenders ahead of him.
Lascelles was rated as an early doubt with an ankle injury, but training photos from over the weekend show him taking part, making me hopeful he’ll be OK to start. Given Lejeune and Clark aren’t fit, Schar will be the only option should the skipper miss out, so we’ll have to hope he is MUCH better than he was against City last Sunday if Bruce is forced to start him. Based on how solid they’ve been since we switched to a four-man defence, I hope it’s Lascelles, no Schar, partnering Fernandez.
At right-back, Manquillo has started every game since football returned and has done well, however he limped off with a knock at Bournemouth so this could be a good time to rest him – especially when Krafth did such a good job on Wednesday.
Yedlin hasn’t been named in Bruce’s 11 since football returned and will want game time, so I wouldn’t be shocked if he came in, but I reckon Bruce will reward the Swede for his solid display in midweek and give him rare back to back starts.
On the other side, Rose was rested at the Vitality and will almost certainly return to the side, with him our only recognised left-back now Willems’ loan has ended and Dummett is ineligible.
In midfield, Shelvey seems to be one of Bruce’s main men and one of the first names on the teamsheet when fit, so he seems set to start again after a top draw display on Wednesday. It’s also worth noting he’s made a habit of performing well or scoring against the Hammers in recent seasons. The question is, who partners him? Bentaleb doesn’t deserve to be dropped, but it’s hard to see Hayden missing out again after he was benched at Bournemouth. I’d prefer to see the Schalke loanee start again and think he deserves another chance, but I can see Hayden returning.
In attack, Ritchie may well return IF he’s deemed fit enough after missing the last two with a knock, but it’s Lazaro who surely deserves a chance to impress from the off after he made a huge impact from the bench last time out. He looks a class act to me, but we aren’t going to pay £20m for him if he’s constantly used as nothing more than a impact player.
On the other flank, it’ll surely be Saint-Maximin – providing Bruce reckons he’s OK to go again. There’s been some talk that hell be assessed before the game after he started his fourth game in 11 days in midweek, but we’re a totally different side when he starts and he didn’t exactly look like a player that needed a break at Bournemouth!
Almrion was meant to be rested in midweek, but he ended up playing over an hour after Longstaff was forced off early on. The Paraguayan played well when he came on and scored a great goal, but I see him being rested here and Bruce going with Carroll and Gayle up top as a result.
With Joelinton said to be nursing a slight calf problem, I can see him giving the pair who combined so well against Aston Villa a chance to play together – especially when Gayle scored his second in as many league games at Bournemouth and Carroll looked sharp off the bench.
North-East writer Ian Murtagh said Bruce was considering starting the two up top in our FA Cup clash with City last weekend along with Gayle saying after the Villa game that they’d been linking up really well in training, so I have a sneaky feeling they might play together here.
After all, Gayle will be keen to build on a confidence boosting goal at Bournemouth and Carroll eager to get one over the club that didn’t deem him fit enough for a new deal last year!