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Newcastle United 1 v 1 Leeds United
Barclays Premier League
Friday, 17th September 2021 Kick-off 20:00
Leeds face a central defensive headache for Newcastle game
Thursday, 16th Sep 2021 12:25 by Tim Whelan

Leeds are running out of central defenders for the trip to Newcastle United tomorrow night, with the FA upholding Pascal Struijk’s three game ban, and Diego Llorente and Robin Koch unlikely to be fit in time for the game.

The FA’s decision to uphold Struijk’s ban has caused fury on social media, not least because we thought a precedent had been set last season when Tottenham’s Son had a red card downgraded to a booking in similar circumstances. Is it one law for them and one for us?

It was curious that the referee initially didn’t give a free kick, so clearly didn’t even think it was a foul, but then apparently changed his mind and gave the red card because of the severity of the injury. And did so without even reviewing the incident on the VAR monitor, which was only a couple of feet away?

Was the referee swayed by Jurgen Klopp’s intervention, after the Liverpool boss went straight past the stricken Elliot to shout at the official? You would hope that the referee would make his own mind up regardless of anything shouted in his ear by either manager, but the suspicion remains that Klopp was asking for Struijk to be sent off.

Klopp is now certain to face a hostile reception when we play Liverpool again, but while he has gone right down in our estimation we now have a huge respect for the injured Harvey Elliott. 18 year-old Elliott suffered a dislocated ankle and had surgery on Tuesday but could play again this season. On Instagram he described the incident as a "freak accident", and said it was wrong for Struijk to get a three match ban.

Struijk has apologised on social media, saying he was "gutted" and "never meant for it to happen", but he will now miss the Newcastle and West Ham games in the Premier League and Fulham in the Carabao Cup, being available again for the Watford game in October. So where does that leave us for the next few games?

The only reason Struijk was on the field at the time of the Elliot incident was that Llorente had limped off in the first half, and initially he feared that it could be a recurrence of the problem he had last season, which kept him out for several months. But Phil Hay has since revealed that he is likely to be back in a couple of weeks.

But this still leaves us short of options for tomorrow night’s game at least, given that Robin Koch is unlikely to have recovered from his own injury problem in time. Which means that Liam Cooper is the only remaining regular first team central defender. So what options does Marcello Bielsa have for this game?

One would be to switch Luke Ayling to central defence, as he’s done in the past, with Shackleton coming in at right back. But this would give the defence something of a makeshift look, with two players out of their normal positions, and we would lose the attacking momentum we get from Ayling’s runs down the right flank.

But the other option would be to give 19 year-old Charlie Cresswell his first team debut, after a number of impressive performances for the under 23s. He didn’t play in the Papa John's Trophy game at Tranmere on Tuesday night, which suggests we might have been keeping him fresh for the first team on Friday. If he does play it will mean that all the defenders will be operating in their usual positions, and we need to be giving the best of the young players a few opportunities when circumstances allow.

One consolation will be that at least our makeshift defence won’t be facing Newcastle’s best striker, with Calum Wilson also missing the game through injury. The Geordies have a few selection problems of their own, for a game where both sides need a result to kick start their seasons, though it might be a bit early to call it a relegation six pointer.

Looking further ahead, we might expect a slightly experimental line-up for the League Cup tie at Fulham, so Cresswell could well be in for that game, but fingers crossed that either Llorente or Koch is back for the final game of Struijk’s ban, when we play West Ham. Here’s hoping!


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