You have to really feel for Rafa Benitez as Newcastle United approach this weekend.
In a 72 (79 if you want to be awkward) hour period Newcastle face what I believe could be the pivotal part of the season.
At the moment it is 14 points from 12 games but by the time of the final whistle on Tuesday night it will be 14 matches gone.
Not saying that it will happen but to go from 14 points after nine matches to potentially 14 from 14 would be devastating, especially with Chelsea away up next.
In the whole fixture schedule, Watford at home followed three days later by West Brom away, must be a scenario where you are looking for four points minimum.
That is in pretty much any season but certainly this one for sure, Watford are very inconsistent and whilst they can score goals (19), no club outside the bottom six has conceded more than the 21 the Hornets have leaked.
As for West Brom, they haven’t won a Premier League game for 14 weeks, are bottom of the recent form league with only two points from 18, and have just sacked their manager.
I really feel that if Rafa Benitez had everybody fit then he would be relishing these two games, instead I get he wishes there was yet another international break.
Rafa Benitez has already ruled out Lascelles and Atsu for Saturday (and West Brom surely as well),
Mikel Merino had his first full training session yesterday (Thursday), so likewise he surely won’t start either game.
As for Paul Dummett, he has just returned to full training and after three and a half months out injured, and no run out even for the reserves yet, a place on the bench looks his limit at the very most in the coming days.
Which leaves us/Rafa with…?
Last Saturday, Newcastle had this starting 11 against Man Utd:
Elliot, Yedlin, Clark, Lejeune, Manquillo, Ritchie (Aarons 66), Shelvey, Hayden, Murphy, Joselu (Mitrovic 71), Gayle (Diame 77)
Whilst the unused subs were Darlow, Gamez, Perez and Mbemba.
I think sadly, Rafa Benitez has a massive job in terms of navigating his team through the coming days and weeks (Newcastle have 10 games between Saturday and New Year’s Day – 37 days between the first and last of those – after Stoke away on New Year’s Day there will be only 16 games left and 22 gone.).
With key players missing he is having to make some negative decisions, in having to consider playing players who he wouldn’t choose to play, unless having no other option.
In the summer he was left having to make the best of such a strict budget and a failure by the club to cut losses and get unwanted players out, then invest in replacements.
The net result is that Colback, Saivet, Haidara, Mitrovic, Diame, Darlow and Mbemba are all still here.
In addition, budget signings such as Manquillo and Joselu are struggling worse with every game as Rafa is forced to persevere with them, as he doesn’t trust others to come in.
I think Rafa Benitez is positive when he picks for these players: Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejeune, Clark, Ritchie, Shelvey, Merino, Hayden and Gayle (when fully fit as he is now). Bottom line is three of those won’t play in the next two games.
I believe Rafa thinks of those above as Premier League players, or at least have the potential to prove it. With Atsu and Dummett (maybe Perez at a push as well) I think he sees players who can do a job for him but they also will be missing.
Elliot maybe is on that Dummett/Atsu level as well but his shortcomings were exposed at Old Trafford and it was a big move for Rafa Benitez when in the summer he made public that he was desperate to bring in an experienced new number one.
Looking at the other fringe players, especially those in the squad against Manchester United, Aarons and Mitrovic did nothing at Old Trafford to demand they should be picked tomorrow and undoubtedly Rafa has good reasons as to why he has ignored them all season.
Jacob Murphy showed a couple of good touches on Saturday but looks nowhere near ready to start in the Premier League.
This time of the year was always going to be when Premier League squads are tested and I think a fair few players have to start proving the manager and many fans wrong.
I think Shelvey and Gayle showed signs against Man Utd that they are ready to step up and be good quality Premier League standard to head things up and I have no doubt Ritchie will also be able to do that, despite a quiet showing in that 4-1 defeat.
What we need though are the likes of Manquillo, Mitrovic, Aarons, Perez and one or two others to play to their maximum if/when called upon.
We have already seen when playing Bournemouth, Palace, Burnley, Huddersfield, Swansea and Brighton that very few games are going to be easy. Watford and West Brom will be no different.
Rafa Benitez can only do so much and you can talk about formations all you want – but it is the players who dictate success or failure and these next two matches are vital in my opinion to ensure no wobbles in the coming five weeks or so up to New Year.
Personally I would take two draws but the team should be capable of better, here’s hoping.