Speaking ahead of tonight’s game, Rafa Benitez revealed that only two players are definitely ruled out – Dwight Gayle and Ciaran Clark.
One is the club’s top goalscorer and also second top scorer in the Championship overall, whilst for most Newcastle fans, the other is NUFC’s clear player of the season and arguably Rafa’s best signing of last summer.
Rafa says that he has had some key players missing this season and has had to cope at different times without Jack Colback, Jonjo Shelvey, Dwight Gagle, Isaac Hayden and Ciaran Clark.
Asked specifically about the absence of the last named of those players, the United boss says Clark was ‘one of the best defenders’ before he got injured and that Grant Hanley & Chancel Mbemba ‘are trying to fill the gap’.
Rafa Benitez played Lascelles and Hanley together against Burton but despite a clean sheet, the Manager instantly changed it by bringing in Mbemba against Wigan.
In that Burton match, even though playing against very limited and negative opposition, Newcastle looked very exposed through the middle of the defence with a total lack of pace. Chancel Mbemba had been totally sidelined by Rafa but he was forced to bring him back in Ciaran Clark’s absence and has predictably looked way below his best, no surprise considering he’d only started one Championship game since 17 September.
The Newcastle Manager says it is good news that ‘Ciaran Clark is very close’ to returning to training but these matches against Leeds and Ipswich won’t see the former Villa player involved.
Rafa Benitez points to Clark’s quality on the ball and the fact he gives balance to the defence by being left-footed but it goes way beyond that.
I can’t see any area where one of Newcastle’s other central defenders is better than Ciaran Clark in, the Irish international having quality on the ball, pace, excellent in the tackle and in the air, plus his reading of situations.
Up against the Championship’s top scorer in Chris Wood tonight, let’s hope Newcastle’s defending is a lot better than what we saw at Hillsborough.
The Owls failed to punish Newcastle when cutting through the defence early in the game but then a throw-in and simple free-kick saw two easy set-piece goals to give Sheffield Wednesday victory. Wood is decent on the ground and very good in the air, so let’s hope Rafa has given Lascelles and the rest a real wake-up call.
“We have had some key players (missing this season) who were doing well: Shelvey, Gayle, Clark, Hayden and Colback.
“It is something that you have to manage.
“Ciaran Clark was one of the best defenders when he got injury – Hanley and Chancel Mbemba are trying to fill the gap…but the difference between them is Clark is left-footed and to have him playing on this side gives you better possession of the ball, especially when we are playing at home.
“We have good news though for our fans, Dwight Gayle is not very serious and Ciaran Clark is very close (to returning to training).”