After we failed to put away a poor Crystal Palace side following a combination of missed chances, poor defending and frustratingly inept second half display, it’s threatening to feel like one step forward (beating Everton) and two steps back at St James’ Park.
The 4-3-1-2 formation has undoubtedly got us creating more chances, enjoying more of the ball and playing with an air of confidence for the first time since Bruce took the job. That fizzled out pretty alarmingly in the final 45 minutes on Tuesday night, however, so this one feels like a good judge of where we are REALLY at right now.
Thankfully, Fulham keep on losing to keep the gap between us and them at eight points, but we can’t rely on that forever – especially when we face trips to Chelsea and Man Utd after Southampton.
As for the Saints, they got battered 9-0 at Old Trafford just a few days ago, but their previously patched up defence could be much stronger on Saturday if the pre-match team news is anything to go by, with Walker-Peters and Vestegaard in contention and Bednarek succesfully appealing his recent red card.
With Fulham’s next four games being very winnable (West Ham, Everton Sheffield United and Palace) and us facing two tough away days after this one, this could well be the most pivotal weekend yet for Bruce and our hopes of avoiding a dreaded fight for survival between now and May.
Let’s hope we see the performance that outplayed Everton in every department last weekend, not a repeat of that flat second half display that allowed Palace to come away with all three in midweek.
- Jamal Lewis – A major doubt after suffering a hamstring issue this week. A return for Matt Ritchie is on the cards if he misses out.
- Lascelles & Fernandez – Both CB’s have been ruled out of this one by Steve Bruce, leaving us short on defenders heading into this one.
- Ciaran Clark – His wife is in labour, but Bruce reckons he’ll be able to make it IF she gives birth in good time.
- Paul Dummett – Another who is struggling to overcome a niggling injury and has been ruled out (again) as a result. It’s becoming a concern how much the local lad is struggling to stay fit these days.
- Joe Willock – Eligible to play and all set to make his debut based on Bruce’s comments. Remains to be seen if that’ll be off the bench or from the off!
- Allan Saint-Maximin – ‘Ready to start’ once again says Bruce, but will it be another late cameo or in from the off? It may all depend on Fraser’s ability to start three games in a week after his history with fatigue and fitness issues this season!
For the visitors, defensive duo Kyle Walker-Peters and Yannik Vetsegaard are in contention to return, with Oriol Romeu back in training and Yan Bednarek now set to start after having that midweek red at Man Utd overturned.
Predicted line up
(4-3-1-2): Darlow – Manquillo, Schar, Clark, Ritchie – Hendrick, Hayden, Shelvey – Almiron – Wilson, Sant-Maximin.
OUT – Lewis and Fraser?
IN – Ritchie and Saint-Maximin?
Once again, I prefer to have Dubravka back – which is more of a reflection on how good he is than how our No 2 has stepped in – however it seems Bruce is sticking with Darlow until he gives him a major reason not to.
At the back, my line up is on the basis that Clark’s wife has given birth on Friday, with Bruce suggesting that any lengthy period in labour will see the Irish international miss this one. So, if he’s available he’ll partner Schar, otherwise Hayden will have to drop in – which wouldn’t be ideal given he’s key to bringing fight, bravery and balance to our midfield!
Lewis’ hamstring issue and Bruce’s comment on him potentially missing out pointed to Ritchie starting at left-back. He’s not usually used here if we’re going with a flat back four, but needs must – especially when playing Manquillo down the left would see Krafth come in at RB…
I’d be tempted to start Willock myself, believing he could offer some much needed drive, pace and energy against a fragile Saints side, however it seems likely that the Arsenal loanee is eased in gradually.
That would mean the same midfield three as we’ve seen over the past two games (Hendrick, Hayden and Shelvey), with Matty and Sean seeming to have dropped back down Bruce’s pecking order of late.
In attack, Fraser does not deserve to be dropped, but persistent injury issues, illness earlier this week and the thought of three games in seven days could see Bruce give Saint-Maximin a start instead.
The former Bournemouth star has created a host of chances in our last two, but that’s another reason to suggest he must be protected – especially when his replacement would be a fit-again ASM.
That would see the Frenchman play close by Callum Wilson should we stick with a 4-3-1-2, however he could for once get good service if Almiron continues to look fully of ideas and energy in that No 10 role behind them. He was our best player against Palace and has been our only consistent player since the turn of the year for me.
Here’s a few ones to watch in Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Saints side:
Danny Ings – We kept Calvert-Lewin quiet last weekend, but give fellow England striker Ings the chances we sometimes presented Palace with on Tuesday and they’ll be gobbled up. High energy and brilliant technically.
Jannik Vestegaard – The 6ft 6′ Dane has been one of the PL’s best centre-backs this season, leaving the Saints lost without him of late. IF he returns to the side this weekend, his dominance in the air (in both boxes), reading of the game and ability to pick out some ridiculous cross field passes will be on to watch.
James Ward-Prowse – When it comes to set piece deliveries and the ability to consistently curl a 25-yard free kick right into the top corner, I don’t think there’s much better. We were punished by giving away a cheap foul on the edge of our box against Palace and will be again here if we’re not careful!
Southampton blew us away and barely gave us a kick in a 2-0 win earlier this season. The scoreline flattered us in truth, but they’ve had a tough time of it of late, losing four league games on the spin by an aggregate score of 15-1!
That said, they reacted incredibly the last time they lost 9-0 and have gone from having a major injury crisis (particularly in defence) to being likely to welcome back a host of key players at St James’ Park.
Their confidence levels will have taken a hit and they’ve clearly developed a soft centre, so it’s imperative we get at them from the off AND finish our chances this time should we play as we did in that first half vs Palace.
A huge game for Steve Bruce and a Newcastle side showing signs of improvement but ultimately needing points over performances.
Some say we need to win, some say we must not lose. I’m going for a high scoring draw!
Prediction: Newcastle 2-2 Southampton