City boss Paul Lambert confirmed this morning that Texan defender Zak Whitbread was very much ‘in his thinking’ ahead of tomorrow’s home clash with an injury-hit Newcastle United.
Whitbread, 27, was back on the bench last weekend for the 5-1 mauling at Manchester City.
Whether he has now sufficient fitness in the tank after his lengthy autumn lay-off to prise the combination of full-back Russell Martin and Leon Barnett apart at the heart of that Canary defence is just one question for Lambert to know and United chief Alan Pardew to guess.
Tongue wedged in cheek, Lambert suggested that he would make his decision at “one minute to three” tomorrow. He also has a decision to make as to whether to ask the in-form Steve Morison to continue to plough a lone furrow up top – or whether to try and make the most of Newcastle’s defensive difficulties by partnering him with a Grant Holt or a Simeon Jackson.
Either way, Lambert was fully expecting another testing afternoon. For all their woes on the back of that 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea last weekend, the Toon Army have still only witnessed one defeat on their travels – and that was at Manchester City.
Victory and this season’s surprise package could force their way back into the top four again.
Yet another high stakes game looms large at Carrow Road tomorrow.
“Newcastle have done fantastically well this season – there’s no doubt [about that],” Lambert said, speaking at this morning’s official Press conference at Colney.
“They’ve not lost many games and, yes, it’s going to be another really hard game,” he added.
“It’s an extremely tough league – week in, week out – and this one will be no different. This will be a really, really tough one. But we’re at home and the onus is on us to try and win the game.”
The loss of the influential Steven Taylor with a ruptured Achilles was something that Lambert wasn’t about to pin too many hopes on; he didn’t buy ‘the weakened team’ argument. He has, of course, had more than his fair share of centre-half hard luck stories with both Elliott Ward and Daniel Ayala slowly making their own way back from lengthy lay-offs. Whitbread, for now, remains at the head of the queue with regard to a potential first team return.
“I’ve had the same problem with Whitbread, Ward and Ayala all out at the same time, so I’ve had to put Russell Martin in there,” said the Canary chief, his Premiership new-boys finding clean sheets all-too hard to come by in the highest flight.
“But we’ve coped really, really fine with it and I’m sure that Newcastle will too. And I don’t think Alan will look for any sympathy – that’s the nature of the game; that you have to expect injuries and suspensions. And I’m pretty sure that he’ll trust the lads that he puts in to do a job.”
Lambert clearly hadn’t spent the last week dwelling over-long on the 5-1 defeat to Silva and Co; no huge post-mortems – “I’m no Quincy,” he quipped.
“Listen, Manchester City are an incredible club – with the players that they have got,” he stressed. “At 3-1, I would have taken that and have got out of there. But the last two goals in the last couple of minutes I don’t think was a fair reflection of the game.
“But then they just turn up and beat Bayern Munich, so it just goes to show you the magnitude [of the task].”
Ritchie de Laet’s on-going back trouble is the only other injury of note – ensuring that form, rather than fitness will dictate Lambert’s selection thinking over the next 24 hours.
Whether the likes of a David Fox or a Wes Hoolahan have done enough in training to force their way back into his starting thinking; whether Holt remains a last 20 minute ‘impact player’; whether his two winger policy of Anthony Pilkington to the left and Elliott Bennett to the right deserves a re-visit – all will come into his thinking as the manager sits down with his No2 Ian Culverhouse and ponders his options.
Whichever way he turns team-wise, tomorrow’s clash remains another key date in City’s Premiership diary; carry on where they left off in the home win over Queen’s Park Rangers and make the very most of Newcastle’s post-Chelsea discomforts and the Norfolk side could set themselves up for a very merry Christmas; their top-half billing secured for another few weeks or so.