Rafa Benitez faces a few selection dilemmas for the clash with former employers Liverpool on Saturday with several key players either ruled out with injury or recovering from knocks.
Jonjo Shelvey is denied a return to Anfield by a knee injury picked up at Bournemouth last week, a fact Benitez confirmed in his pre-match press conference on Friday. Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie, who were both substituted during the draw at the Vitality Stadium, suffered minor injuries but are fit enough to face Jurgen Klopp’s in-form side.
It leaves Benitez with an interesting quandary regarding several of his key players ahead of the visit of Southampton to St James’ Park next weekend. The Saints are 16th in the table, one place and two points below Newcastle, and in the wider context of a tightly contested relegation battle involving at least 10 clubs, Benitez will surely recognise the importance of victory in that fixture in front of a home crowd.
How that influences his team selection for Liverpool is unclear because, as we have already established, Benitez is a manager that keeps his cards tight against his chest and always has an ace up his sleeve. Even against Bournemouth, the United sprung a surprise by naming the same starting XI that beat Manchester United a fortnight earlier – an uncharacteristic move from a manager whose philosophy advocates regular player rotation.
So it would be foolish to second-guess the team Benitez will field against Liverpool, but there’s a feeling he will take the cautious approach and protect the fitness of certain players in preparation for Southampton.