With kick off at St James’ Park only a few hours away, it’s time to look at the side that could start against an in-form Chelsea side this afternoon.
Keeping form and fitness in mind, here’s the team I can see Steve Bruce going with come 12.30pm:
Predicted NUFC XI (5-4-1): Darlow – Manquillo, Fernandez, Lascelles, Clark, Lewis – Murphy, S Longstaff, Hayden, ASM – Wilson.
OUT – Schar, Hendrick, Almiron
IN – Clark, Manquillo, Hayden.
Bruce hinted at changes after that abysmal defeat at Southampton last time out, and the three I’ve got coming into the side have rarely let us down over the past 18 months and probably deserve recalls.
Starting at the back, I’ve thought for a few weeks that Ciaran Clark will be knocking on the door for a start when fully fit – and his Ireland call-up suggests he’s finally ready to play.
With Schar looking half asleep and erratic in our 2-0 loss at Southampton, I reckon Bruce might just hand our reliable Irishman a rare start. After all, he rarely puts a foot wrong when he plays – and we’ll need players to be on their guard against this lethal Chelsea attack.
Because it could well be a backs against the wall job, I can also see Manquillo coming back in for Murphy – who was another to struggle at St Mary’s. For me, the Spaniard remains our best right-back and hasn’t done much wrong over the past 18 months.
In midfield, it’s time Hendrick was taken out of the firing line for me – especially now Hayden is fit.
Almiron has played in a midfield three in our last three games, but with him not returning from Paraguay until 11pm on Thursday and being linked with a move away all week, I think Bruce may pair Sean Longstaff with Hayden (a partnership that’s worked in the past).
I wouldn’t be surprised if Matty Longstaff gets a rare start should Bruce stick with the 5-3-1-1 he’s gone with in recent weeks.
With this freeing up an extra spot in the final third, I can see Saint-Maximin being moved to the left (he’s wasted in a No 10 role) and Jacob Murphy getting a chance to prove himself on the other wing after a few weeks in more of a right-back role.
Then, up top, it’ll be Callum Wilson – providing he does pass a late fitness test. Let’s hope his hamstring holds up, because I dread to think how we’ll pose a goal threat if it’s Carroll or Joelinton up top!
How do you see us lining up when the team sheets are released at 11.30?