Firstly, with regards to Leeds United, they are flying right now. They have shot up to sixth in the table, and with Elland Road set to be a sell out for the first time since 2011, they will secretly fancy their chances. After beating Norwich in the dying minutes, thanks to a cracking goal from young sensation Ronaldo Vieira, Leeds too are in the middle of a win streak of their own. Their last defeat ironically came against Derby County, in Steve McClaren’s first game in charge.
If they are to be the team to put a stop to Newcastle’s dominance, though, they will have to do so without their star man Pablo Hernandez, who has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. Skipper Liam Bridcutt is another who is likely to miss out for the Whites, along with Irish midfielder Eunan O’Kane and winger Stuart Dallas.
In terms of players to look out for, the obvious one is Leeds’ talismanic striker Chris Wood. The New Zealand striker has hit a purple patch this season, scoring 11 times in all competitions already. His physical presence will surely make life difficult for United’s defence, something to be very wary of. Kemar Roofe, a summer signing from Oxford, although he hasn't exactly set the division alight, definitely has talent. Whoever plays in the heart of midfield for Newcastle, have to close him down and limit his shooting opportunities. At the back, loan signing Pontus Jansson has come into the Leeds side and become a real favourite with the fans. As well as being a no nonsense defender, his aerial threat from set pieces will give the Magpies a fright.
As for the league leaders themselves, Rafa Benitez will see this as business as usual. Injury wise, it is somewhat as you were. Rob Elliott is nearing a return, as are Massadio Haidara and Daryl Murphy. However, Rolando Aarons has once again been shot down with injury. On Wednesday (his birthday), Newcastle broke the news that he had ruptured his ACL in his right knee and will miss the rest of the season. Terrible news for him, and for the club who had such high hopes of the young winger.
So who will play on Sunday? Well, Rafa will likely stick with his 4-2-3-1 formation that has worked for him all season. Whether he plays 11 goal man Dwight Gayle, or the red-hot Aleksandar Mitrovic, remains a mystery as always. The key man though, as everybody knows, is Jonjo Shelvey. After pleading not guilty to his misconduct charge on Wednesday evening, Shelvey is available for Sunday’s game, with his personal hearing likely to take place next week.
This is a big boost for Newcastle, given that they really do not have anybody in reserve to take up his “quarter-back” role. With regards to the defence, it is relatively settled now. Jamaal Lascelles will partner the excellent Ciaran Clark in the centre of defence, with Paul Dummett at left back and either Yedlin/Anita on the opposite side.
So, how can Newcastle hurt the home side? Perhaps the biggest assets Newcastle have right now are Mitrovic and Gayle. While the former offers plenty of physicality and aerial ability, the latter is faster and is able to use that to breach defensive lines, giving Shelvey a brilliant target with his long through passes.
Matt Ritchie, who has been absolutely magnificent for the Geordies this season (4 goals and 7 assists) is back from suspension and will add finesse and work rate to the right flank. The form of Ciaran Clark has been a pleasant surprise to the supporters, he has formed a formidable partnership with captain Lascelles, only conceding 7 times in 8 league matches. Both will have to be on top form to keep out Leeds this weekend.
I do not think anybody will want to touch this game with any sort of bet. This could be as comfortable as Newcastle want it to be, or as uncomfortable as Leeds want it to be. One thing is for sure though, a win for the away side will send the 23 other teams into despair.
Likely line ups:
Leeds- Green, Ayling, Jansson, Bartley, Taylor, Phillips, Vieira, Doukara, Roofe, Sacko, Wood
Newcastle- Darlow, Yedlin, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett, Shelvey, Hayden, Ritchie, Diame, Gouffran, Gayle
Prediction- Leeds 1-2 Newcastle