St James’ Park
3pm, Saturday 29/2/20

After an absolutely wretched couple of away days, United return to St James’ this Saturday for the visit of Sean Dyche’s eighth placed Burnley. Strangely, neither SKY or BT fancied showing it. Funny, that.

Is it a ‘must win’? Probably. What about a ‘must not lose’? Most definitely.

The Clarets will arrive in decent fettle. Having seen off our fellow strugglers, Bournemouth last time out on home soil, they’re now on 37 points; some thirteen clear of the drop zone. Following Man City’s Euro ban, they will be one of a clutch of sides looking upwards and eyeing a sneaky route into next season’s UEFA League.

Since losing to Chelsea in early January, Burnley have impressively dispatched Man U & Southampton away, also beating Leicester and the aforementioned Cherries at home. During this run, they’ve also drawn at Turf Moor with Arsenal.

Their strikers Wood, Barnes and Rodriguez have plundered twenty four between them and the former has put us to the sword a few times before. It would be nice if a recent hamstring injury could keep the big Kiwi sidelined for another week, but latest reports allude to him winning his ‘fitness race’ for Saturday.

It’s a battle of No form versus In form. And we are most definitely at the smelly end of that particular stick.

I keep reading on various social media platforms that we shouldn’t talk about Rafa anymore. Whilst to some degree I get this, I don’t fully subscribe to it. I also think that mentioning our ex whilst discussing this home tussle with Burnley is particularly apt. It was almost a year to the day, when we last locked horns with Saturday’s visitors at St James’. United were absolutely superb on the night.

It was a Newcastle team that looked like going places. We were tight at the back, had Sean Longstaff imperiously pulling the strings in midfield and were showing serious threat up top. We won 2-0 on that occasion, with a goal of the month winner from Schär and another from Longa. It could/should have been four or five, such was our superiority.

Had our Spanish Supremo been allowed to stay and grow the club we’d be significantly higher in the Premiership now and ‘one goal Joe’ would more than likely still be plying his trade in the Bundesliga.  However, for the second season in a row, self-harming Mike suddenly reappeared and got himself involved. Look where we are a year down the line.

We’ve a blustering ‘yes man’ in the dug out and a team with very little attacking threat, playing out matches in front of a bemused, flag-less crowd, propped up by 10,000 *FTM’s.  How we’re not rooted to the bottom of the table, God only knows?

Exceptional fortune and a good team spirit have been key. However, we’re currently seeing evidence that these will only get you so far. Burnley will arrive on Tyneside as favourites. Aye, the team we contemptuously brushed aside twelve months ago. It’s criminal.

Having been annihilated by a disbelieving Arsenal the week before, it was clear that Bruce’s tactics and team selection were seriously awry.  Whilst Bentaleb ahead of Hayden was a serious ‘head scratcher’, playing Lazaro as an emergency right wing back proved to be an even more calamitous choice. Steve, he’s not a defender. He can’t defend. I can see that, and I’ve only watched him a couple of times. Surely, you can?

Erm, clearly not. But for one enforced change, he’d have gone with exactly the same team, playing exactly the same way at Selhurst. The result wasn’t quite so demoralising, but that was only down to profligate Palace finishing and expert goal keeping.  The performance was actually worse than at the Emirates, where at least we made a decent fist of things for half an hour. Bentaleb did nowt again and Lazaro got the run around until he took one for the team, in added on time.

How many times d’you have to punch yourself in the face before realising it’s not the best of ideas?

The only tangible positive is that we currently sit seven points above the bottom three. We’re on thirty one points and probably need a couple of wins and draws (from somewhere) to be ok.  The big issue here is though, we were actually on thirty points over a month ago. The teams below us aren’t showing much momentum in managing to get past us, but we can’t rely on that for much longer. See West Ham’s spirited performance at Anfield for evidence.

So, what can he do?

For one, surely he’s got to take Joelinton out of the firing line? I’m hearing that Dwight Gayle is pencilled in to take over this weekend, and whilst that doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, it appears to be a necessity. He needs Hayden back in the midfield. I’m sure he’s pissed off at recent selection snubs and will be properly fired up.

I’ve also heard that Manquillo might be fit enough to return on the right. He was in top form just prior to his unfortunate injury and would hopefully help shore up that side of the field. We could also do with seeing Matt Ritchie back in the starting XI. He’s a leader on the pitch and Christ, do we need some of that on Saturday.

As ever, it’s tough to call this weekend.  We’ve upset the odds a number of times this season and will need to do so again to get anything versus Burnley. Given the most recent evidence however, it’s near impossible to find much positivity to hang your hat on. I reckon we’ve an outside chance of a point, but I’m going for a narrow away win. 0-1, Wood.

Prove me wrong, Mr Bruce. Please.

Nick Clark

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