Our biggest game of the season to date? I think it has to be.
With Fulham now turning promising displays into points, I fully expect them to put away an awful Crystal Palace side on Sunday – but it’s all about us now we enter the first of FOUR winnable games.
Beat Wolves and we’ll remain at least three points clear of Scott Parker’s side before they face Spurs, Liverpool and Man City. Considering that tough run of theirs coincides with winnable games against West Brom, Aston Villa and Brighton for us, you can start to appreciate why this could be a significant weekend one way or another.
Our display at Man Utd was good for 55 minutes, yet we still conceded too many cheap goals, couldn’t make the most of a real off night for the Red Devils and allowed our heads to drop as soon as they made it 2-1 against the run of play.
Performance levels have improved since Jones arrived, with big wins over Everton and Southampton proof of that. The question is, are we able to capitalise on this run of ‘winnable’ games without a certain Callum Wilson?
There’s no doubt his absence blunts our attack, but we’ll have to hope Dubravka’s return gives our defence a boost and that Saint-Maximin can produce that match-winning magic on a regular basis while we’re without Wilson’s goals.
- Callum Wilson – Out with a hamstring injury and ‘three or four weeks’ away says Steve Bruce.
- Javier Manquillo – Spotted in training on Thursday, but remains to be seen if this one will come too soon for the Spaniard.
- Fabian Schar – Out with a knee injury. Has had surgery and is now on crutches.
- Federico Fernandez – Has trained all week and is ‘available’, however Steve Bruce has suggested this one might still be a ‘bit early’ for the Argentine.
- Joelinton – Limped off at Old Trafford last weekend but has been declared fit for this one.
The visitors will be without tricky attacker Daniel Podence, giant centre-back Willy Boly, star striker Raul Jimenez and left-back Marcal.
(4-3-1-2): Dubravka – Krafth, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett – Willock, Hayden, Shelvey – Almiron – Joelinton, Saint-Maximin.
Bruce refused to give a definite answer on the goalkeeping situation in his press conference on Friday, but The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards claims Dubravka is all set to come in for Darlow.
Our stand-in stopper has been brilliant in the Slovakian’s absence, however the time has come for us to start our best players – and Dubravka is one of them. The big thing he adds for me is the ability to organise his defence in front of him, being more vocal and a greater calming influence than Darlow.
At the back, it seems like this one will come just too soon for Manquillo and Fernandez, but I would not be surprised if Dummett comes in at left-back. Bruce insisted that our rarely seen Geordie would have a big role to play over the run-in after he helped keep Southampton at bay a few weeks back, so he could be tasked to deal with one of Neto or Traore – wingers who’d be fancying their chances should a fragile Lewis keep his place!
I don’t see any changes coming in midfield – despite the fact either of the Longstaff’s would be far more capable of pressing than Shelvey – and think we’ll also go with the same front three that started at Man Utd.
Most would sooner see Gayle or Fraser start in Wilson’s absence, but the former struggled badly and Chelsea and the latter made zero impact from the bench at Old Trafford, so I can see Joelinton being given the nod. For what it’s worth, I thought he did a decent job before he was forced off, with us immediately looking more disjointed the moment he made way.
Wolves have won three and drawn one of their last four league games, however I did watch them in their 1-0 win over Leeds last week and they were VERY fortunate to win. They could’ve concede two or three on another night and only got on the scoresheet themselves via a freak own goal.
The likes of Neto and Traore are the big danger men and could punish our clear weakness at full-back, not forgetting the fact they are often a tough nut to crack defensively and competitive in midfield, however there is one thing we SHOULD have over them – motivation.
We are a side scrapping for survival and head into this knowing the importance of a win, where as Wolves might just be resting on their laurels slightly after a few good results helped them move away from the drop zone and into mid-table obscurity – not back in the race for Europe.
I think we might struggle to break them down and fear for our full-backs at the other end, so can see this one ending in a low-scoring draw.
Prediction: Newcastle 1-1 Wolves