When Newcastle was drawn against Metalist Kharkiv back in December, these two weeks had the potential to be a squad-busting nightmare. Four matches in 10 days, including a round trip to the Ukraine, may have meant another start for Nile Ranger. Maybe Xisco would have even made the bench.
Of course, the early FA cup exit and influx of talented Frenchmen made the schedule much less daunting. While wins tomorrow and Sunday aren't guaranteed, Alan Pardew has enough good players at his disposal to make it happen. But who should he select to earn a trip to the Europa League's sweet 16 - and push the club three points closer to Premier League safety?
Metalist Kharkiv: If Pardew wanted to be incredibly cautious, he could give Rob Elliot, who has not done much wrong this season, the start in goal tomorrow. But most likely, it'll be Tim Krul between the posts, protected by the same back four that helped him earn a clean sheet last week. Davide Santon has been slightly wobbly of late, however, and it wouldn't hurt to see new signing Massadio Haïdara in action for the first time. Though Santon appears to have an unlimited amount of energy in his 22-year-old legs, a break may help him reflect on his defensive lapses.
New signings and returning players present all sorts of options in the central midfield triangle Pardew now prefers. Vurnon Anita deserves a chance to start in his preferred holding role, and this match provides the perfect chance for him to do so. The same goes for Sylvain Marveaux in his own favored role, behind a lone striker with two players behind him to clean up on defense. If Pardew wants to go for it against Metalist, expect Yohan Cabaye to play alongside Anita; if he's holding back a bit for Sunday, James Perch or Gaël Bigirimana would be fine choices.
Up front, I'd let Papiss Cissé try to get the confidence-building goal he was denied by a terrible officiating decision last week at St. James' Park. Whether Santon or Haïdara starts at left back, Jonás Gutiérrez would make sense as a covering defender at left wing. He's shown flashes of being as creative as he ever has been at Newcastle, but anything he produces offensively is a bonus. With Yoan Gouffran ineligible, his former Bordeaux teammate Gabriel Obertan should get the nod on the right, with the two occasionally swapping sides. If the attack appears a bit flat, the likes of Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko would be formidable bench options on Thursday night.
Southampton: Everyone is available and the possibilities are downright mouth-watering. Were I in Pardew's shoes, I'd give Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa the start at center back alongside Fabricio Coloccini, flanked by Europa-ineligible Mathieu Debuchy and Santon. The risk-averse manager will probably prefer Steven Taylor both Thursday and Sunday. He's not a bad player, but Yanga-Mbiwa is an incredible talent, as we saw when he was played out of position last week. Sooner or later, he has to become an every-week starter.
In midfield, the tested pairing of Cabaye and Cheick Tioté should start together in the Premier League for the first time since the derby in October. (Yes, you read that right.) With Sissoko playing in front of them, it's difficult to think of a more formidable midfield, in virtually every aspect, in the entire league.
Up front, things are less clear. Were everyone fully rested, it seems apparent that Pardew intends to start Cissé as a lone striker, flanked by the constantly switching Yoan Gouffran and Hatem Ben Arfa. That's probably what will happen anyway on Sunday. But depending on who plays Thursday, and how much, Gouffran might be worth a look in Cissé's place, with Ben Arfa and Gutiérrez (backed up by Marveaux) on the wings. For an even crazier option, picture the spry Gouffran and Ben Arfa in orbit around Shola Ameobi. Southampton does wear red and white stripes, after all...well, not quite.
My team suggestions - Alan, if you're reading this, jot them down:
vs. Metalist Kharkiv (4-2-3-1): Krul; Yanga-Mbiwa, Taylor, Coloccini, Haïdara; Perch, Anita; Obertan, Marveaux, Gutiérrez; Cissé.
vs. Southampton (4-2-3-1): Krul; Debuchy, Yanga-Mbiwa, Coloccini, Santon; Tioté, Cabaye; Ben Arfa, Sissoko, Gouffran; Cissé.