By Matt Farr
Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez is expected to make wholesale changes for his side’s upcoming FA Cup third round clash with Birmingham on Saturday.
The Magpies were on the end of a shock 1-0 defeat to Blackburn on Monday, and the Newcastle boss is expected to rotate his options for the cup tie, with as many as seven expected changes.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ayoze Perez, Grant Hanley and Cheick Tiote are expected to be handed rare starts by Benitez, while Matz Sels, Achraf Lazaar and DeAndre Yedlin could also come in.
Benitez will be without trio Mo Diame, Christian Atsu and Chancel Mbemba, due to their involvement in the Africa Cup of Nations, while Jonjo Shelvey remains suspended.
Top goalscorer Dwight Gayle is likely to be rested, alongside Paul Dummet, Ciaran Clark, Karl Darlow and Jack Colback.
Karl Darlow has been Newcastle first-choice goalkeeper for much of the campaign, and he has done very well – keeping eight clean sheets from 13 appearances.
However, the cup fixture could see Matz Sels return to the fray. The 24-year-old began the campaign as Newcastle’s No.1, but was demoted to deputy at the end of September.
Jamaal Lascelles is expected to be one of just four survivors from the Blackburn defeat, and his leadership skills will be imperative as Benitez attempts to bring together a bunch of players that have not played much time together in the first-team this season.
Grant Hanley, for example, has appeared just eight times in all competitions this season, having not played since his minute-long substitute appearance against Preston on 29 October.
Full-backs Achraf Lazaar and DeAndre Yedlin have had much more first-team football this season, and are likely to come in as Benitez rests Vurnon Anita and Paul Dummett.
Following his summer move from Arsenal, Isaac Hayden has been a regular part of Benitez’s first-team squad, making 25 appearances already this season.
Despite playing the full 90 minutes of seven of Newcastle’s last eight league games, the 21-year-old will be needed to dominate the midfield against a Birmingham side that should not be underestimated.
30-year-old midfielder Cheick Tiote is expected to be named in the matchday squad for just the fifth time this season, and is likely to partner Hayden in the centre of midfield.
Tiote has cut a rather frustrated figure at St. James’ Park this season, and this could be his final opportunity to prove himself to Benitez. His lack of action saw him miss out on the Ivory Coast squad for the Africa Cup of Nations, and he could quit the club this month in search of a fresh start.
The absence of the AFCON-bound Diame, meanwhile, will allow the Newcastle boss to deploy Ayoze Perez in the No.10 role.
The Spaniard has scored six goals from 22 appearances this season, but has started just one of Newcastle’s last five league games.
Magpies’ wide-men Matt Ritchie and Yoan Gouffran are expected to continue in their respective roles following the defeat at Ewood Park, while striker Aleksandar Mitrovic should lead the line.
Mitrovic was a surprise omission from the matchday squad to face Blackburn, but is expected to return to the starting line-up to face Birmingham. He has five goals this season from 16 games.
Top goalscorer Dwight Gayle is almost certain to get a much-deserved rest, and Benitez is likely to pick the Serbia international over 33-year-old Daryl Murphy.