Newcastle face Leicester City at The King Power Stadium on Friday night looking to bounce back from a 2-0 defeat against Arsenal that ended a four-match unbeaten run of two wins and two draws that propelled the club away from danger in a key month with two wins over West Ham and Burnley and draws against Spurs and Liverpool.
Nine points clear of Fulham above the relegation zone with just four games left to play, Newcastle are not quite out of the relegation woods until safety is mathematically certain yet Bruce is keen to get that final win on board as soon as possible that would absolutely guarantee Premier League football next year.
Collectively, Newcastle didn't hit the heights of April's run of good form and certainly missed two important components of that 8-point streak namely super-sub Joe Willock, a tag the Arsenal man keen to establish himself as a Premier League regular hates, and also Joelinton, who dropped to the bench in place of the match fit-again Callum Wilson.
There's no doubt Callum Wilson, Newcastle's top scorer, with 10 goals in 19 games so far since signing for £20M in the summer, is in Newcastle's best starting XI yet he could a frustrated, isolated figure against The Gunners and would surely thrive alongside not instead of Joelinton, whose aerial ability and physical presence was noticeable in its absence not to mention the two crucial goals he scored at St James' Park in April.
In the rejigged 3-5-2 formation that brought Matt Ritchie back into the Newcastle side in April as an influential left-sided wing back role with his devilish dead ball delivery and crosses, the aerial prowess of Joelinton who was 7th in The Premier League for aerial duels last season was missed as well as Joe Willock's energy & presence in the box.
Take the late equalizer against Spurs as the best example as Ritchie's 85th cross was headed back into the danger zone by the big Brazilian Joelinton and eventually found its way to Joe Willock who was on the spot to gleefully crash the goal home:
Generally, Joelinton at 6ft 1in and 12 stones is physically a handful for opposition defenders and with an ability win headers, hold the ball up and bring others into play with intelligent passes is an ideal support striker for the more prolific Wilson as was best in evidence in the 2-0 away win at Crystal Palace when both grabbed a goal.
The Arsenal back line was able to handle Wilson on his own very effectively yet Newcastle got into better attacking positions once Joelinton replaced Almiron in the 73rd minute and he began occupying defenders which gave Wilson and Saint-Maximin more freedom to make a difference.
Bruce's dilemma for the Leicester game is whether to keep the 5-3-2 system which worked in April and tweak the personnel bringing in Joelinton and Joe Willock - who surely must be in line for a start after recent goalscoring heroics - return to the attacking 4-3-1-2 system that beat Everton & Southampton in late Jan/early Feb or even the more conventional 4-4-2 which brought all three points against Crystal Palace:
Leicester are unbeaten in four but are not unbeatable as a rampant West Ham found beating them 3-2 last month and Southampton held The Foxes last game although their manager Brendan Rodgers will no doubt be impressing upon his side that it is a must-win game against The Magpies with remaining fixtures against Man United, Spurs and Chelsea holding their Champions League Destiny.
In Rodger's pre-match press conference, he revealed that one of Newcastle's nemeses in last year's 5-0 thrashing at The King Power Stadium, Ricardo Perreira, who scored the first goal and wreaked havoc all game with roving runs especially after Isaac Hayden's harsh dismissal, is fit again after missing three Premier League games:
and praised opposite number Steve Bruce, for bouncing back after a bad start to his Newcastle managerial career to lead the club to safety with games to spare in 2019/20 and being close to doing the same again this season:
adding he expects a tough game against a Newcastle side his Foxes have beaten four times in Premier League and Cup since the two managers have been in control:
"It’s a different type of game. They’re good on the counter-attack. They have some dangerous players and they don’t just sit back. They have players with great speed. They’ve had some really good results and are organised.
"Hopefully, it will be a tough game for Newcastle as well.”
In Bruce's presser on Thursday morning, he refused to accept Brendan Rodgers' verdict that his job at Newcastle had been an "outstanding success" but paid tribute to his opposite number as a young, British manager who has delivered another exciting team who just missed out on The Champions League last season and are very close again this season to finishing in those coveted Top 4 Premier League places.
Bruce reiterated his belief that "Its an accumulation of points" over the season that makes up the final League position of a team and "You finish where you deserve" and that Newcastle haven't been as "consistent" as he would have liked although he stressed again the "brutal and ruthless" Covid-19 virus that swept through the team late last year and affected everybody leaving players ill, tired & even now "running on empty" after the most arduous campaign of their lives. Speaking about Friday's game he said:
and that Joe Willock had been "knocking on his door" for a start "to put it politely" and is in line for a starting place against Leicester after a month impressing off the bench while Callum Wilson has 90 minutes in the tank and is raring to add to his 10-goal season tally.
Prediction - Newcastle 2 Leicester 1