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5th Jan, 2017 | 8:48pm

Academy duo start in Benitez 4-2-3-1: Newcastle best possible XI to face Birmingham

COMMENT By Matt Farr

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez should hand starts to academy duo Callum Roberts and Sean Longstaff when they take on Birmingham in Saturday’s FA Cup third round tie.

With one mind on Newcastle’s Championship title and promotion bid, Benitez is expected to make as many as eight changes to his side following their 1-0 defeat to Blackburn on Monday.

Matz Sels, Achraf Lazaar, Grant Hanley, DeAndre Yedlin, Ayoze Perez and Aleksandar Mitrovic should join the young duo in the side to face Birmingham, with Karl Darlow, Paul Dummett, Ciaran Clark, Vurnon Anita, Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle and Mo Diame missing out.

Diame joins Chancel Mbemba and Christian Atsu on the international stage, where the Africa Cup of Nations will see them absent for a month. Benitez is already without the suspended Jonjo Shelvey, who must sit out two more games.

With one eye on Newcastle’s Championship clash with Brentford on January 16, Benitez will want to take every opportunity to rest some of his most prized assets and keep them fresh for what is likely to be a gruelling second-half of the campaign.

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The cup tie represents an ideal opportunity for Benitez to experiment with his first-team squad, allowing some of the club’s fringe players and youngsters to make an impression.

Matz Sels should be given an opportunity to fight his corner in a bid to regain the No.1 jersey after losing out to Karl Darlow back in September.

The 24-year-old appeared in the final two matches of Newcastle’s EFL Cup campaign, and should keep his role as the Magpies’ cup stopper.

Changes to the back-four are expected, and that could see first-team outcast Grant Hanley return from the fringes to play a role against Birmingham.

Hanley has seen just 59 minutes of Championship action since playing the full 90 minutes on the opening day of the season against Fulham.

He should partner Jamaal Lascelles at the expense of a rested Ciaran Clark. Achraf Lazaar and DeAndre Yedlin, meanwhile, should get a run out in place of full-backs Paul Dummett and Vurnon Anita.

Isaac Hayden is an important cog in Rafa Benitez’s midfield machine, particularly in the absence of Shelvey, and should retain his place to face Birmingham.

However, there could well be a new face alongside him if Benitez chooses to hand youngster Sean Longstaff an opportunity.

The 19-year-old has impressed for Newcastle’s reserve side this season, contributing six goals and three assists from just 10 appearances.

His academy team-mate, Callum Roberts, meanwhile, should also be handed an opportunity in Newcastle’s attack. He too has been impressive, adding four goals and six assists from eight matches. Roberts can play anywhere across the front-three, but should be deployed in his best position as a left-winger.

Yoan Gouffran, Ayoze Perez and Aleksandar Mitrovic should make up the remainder of Newcastle’s attacking unit, with Perez and Mitrovic having played largely substitute roles this season.

The duo have been waiting for a rare opportunity to lead from the front and they may have the perfect opportunity at St. Andrew’s if Benitez gives them the nod.

They have played largely second-fiddle to summer signing Dwight Gayle, who has been in formidable goalscoring form, netting 19 goals from 21 league appearances.

In other Newcastle news, Don Hutchison believes signing these two Premier League players would take Newcastle to another level.