Rafa Benitez has constantly surprised with his team selections throughout the season but one thing has remained a constant.
Jamaal Lascelles and Chancel Mbemba were the first choice centre-back partnership early in the campaign, following on from that promise shown at the end of last season when helping Newcastle to end with six Premier League matches unbeaten.
Then the pair had a disastrous game at home to Wolves, the scoreline 0-2 and the defensive duo all over the place throughout the 90 minutes.
Either of them could have been dropped but the captain’s armband probably saved Lascelles and it was Mbemba who was dropped, Ciaran Clark getting a proper run in the team and never looking back. For Chancel Mbemba everything went in the other direction, seemingly made a bit of a scapegoat as he was then left totally sidelined and even Grant Hanley preferred when occasionally changes were made.
It has been a strange one because Chancel Mbemba showed last year in the Premier League that he was the best centre-half (and defender overall) at Newcastle, then this campaign Ciaran Clark has done the same – indeed being comfortably Newcastle’s best player overall.
Yet the two have started a game together only twice.
The first was back in August when Newcastle won 1-0 at Bristol City BUT Ciaran Clark had a game at left-back, with Mbemba playing alongside Lascelles.
The only other occasion was when Rafa had a big shuffle of the team ahead of the League Cup quarter-final at Hull, for the first time Clark and Mbemba played together in the middle.
They looked fine and did very little wrong, Blackburn won 1-0 but it was one of only two efforts they were allowed on target and the goal came from a set-piece rather than open play. The defeat wasn’t down to them, rather that the team only had two shots on target of their own as they struggled to create against a very poor Blackburn side.
Chancel Mbemba bizarrely found himself dropped after the Leeds match, despite Jamaal Lascelles continuing to struggle and totally losing Wood for that late equaliser.
With Mbemba left out, Rafa put Hanley back in with Lascelles at Ipswich and they had a nightmare, the pair are always going to be handicapped by the fact they have zero pace and are terrible when in possession, whilst in that 3-1 defeat nothing in their game went right.
Thankfully Ciaran Clark came back against Preston, playing alongside Lascelles, and promotion was secured.
Clark and Mbemba are both quick, comfortable on the ball, and surely have been worth more of a try together this season than Rafa has given them.
I don’t think anybody thinks Grant Hanley could do it in the Premier League, whilst it appears most Newcastle fans have had increasing doubts about Lascelles being able to handle the top tier as this season has progressed.
On the other hand, Ciaran Clark is one of the few current players who would carry maximum faith of fans when stepping up a division and surely Chancel Mbemba is worth another chance, he has natural ability and could potentially do it in the Premier League – something that I just don’t see with Lascelles and Hanley.
Tonight we are set to see a rare double outing by default, as Rafa Benitez has confirmed both Hanley and Lascelles won’t be part of the squad.
I would hope that if Mbemba does ok alongside Clark against Cardiff, they are given another chance against Barnsley, regardless of whether the likes of Lascelles is fit.
The odds are against it but just maybe Chancel Mbemba has a small chance of being part of Newcastle United next season in the Premier League.
Rafa Benitez – Thursday 27 April:
“In terms of injuries, we have some players who were playing with little problems – Lascelles, Ritchie, Hanley, Anita. Also, Gamez has a problem and Gayle is still not available.
“So with these players, we will try to fix their problems now because we have more time.
“They will not be in the squad (for Cardiff).
“If everything is fine, they will be ready as soon as possible, not for this game but maybe for the next game (final day v Barnsley).”
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