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Now's time to shine, Mikel; toon need spaniard to be at his creative best in absence of shelvey.

Byline: CHRIS WAUGH Sports Writer chris.waugh@trinitymirror.com @CHRISDHWAUGH

IT HAS been a curious campaign for Mikel Merino.

Signed last summer as a relative unknown to the majority of Newcastle United fans, the 21-year-old quickly established himself as a fans' favourite after some excellent early displays in black-and-white.

When the Magpies announced in October that the Spain Under-21 international's initial seasonlong loan move from Borussia Dortmund had been made permanent, Newcastle fans welcomed the transfer.

Yet, ever since he rose off the bench to score the Magpies' important winner during the 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace on October 21, the technically gifted midfielder has slowly seen his stock fall on Tyneside. A lowerback problem sidelined Merino for a month and, although he returned to the side in late November, the Spaniard was still feeling the after-effects of that injury until well into 2018.

After an underwhelming display against Liverpool last weekend in what was only Merino's second Premier League start of the calendar year, some fans have questioned whether he should continue in that central-midfield role alongside Mo Diame this weekend.

Jonjo Shelvey is a major doubt due to the knee injury which kept him out of the trip to Anfield, and it would appear highly unlikely that Rafa Benitez would risk his most creative midfield option given that he will have a threeweek rest period during which to recover fully after tomorrow's clash with Southampton.

Should Benitez deem that Merino - who admitted he felt "tired" during the closing stages of the 2-0 defeat against Liverpool - does not warrant another start, then he would likely name Isaac Hayden in a Premier League XI for just the second time in 2018.

The 22-year-old excelled during the Magpies' 2-2 draw with the Saints down at St Mary's in October, after all, with the former England Under-21 international lashing in the Magpies' opener after 20 minutes. But, given that Benitez has already promised that Newcastle will "attack" Southampton and "create chances", pairing both Diame and Hayden together in the engine room is unlikely to be provide greater innovation in the middle.

That duo would offer power, workrate and defensive discipline, but they would lack the creativity in the middle of the park which Newcastle will need if they are to overcome a Saints side who appear likely to sit deep and task the Magpies with attempting to break them down.

Merino, on the other hand, has the dynamism, vision and ingenuity needed to carve open stubborn defensive lines - or at least he does when he is on form.

At Anfield, the 21-year-old was clearly lacking his usual rhythm and accuracy in possession. Yet, though his performance was underwhelming in many ways, there were reasons for encouragement too.

Of all the players in black-andwhite stripes out on that Anfield pitch, Merino was the one who really tried to make something happen.

His radar was faulty, so his passes often failed to find their target, but the Spaniard always attempted to do something positive and constructive when in possession.

His lack of precision did not dent his self-belief either; rather than shy away from the ball, Merino remained brave and constantly demanded it from his team-mates as he sought a way to drag Newcastle back into the game.

If Merino has been able to rediscover his range on the training ground this week, then he is the Magpies' best creative option in the middle in Shelvey's likely absence.

Whether Merino partners Diame or Hayden is another debate entirely; the former has been excellent in recent months, but the latter impressed against Southampton earlier in the season, so it appears a tough call which Benitez will have to make.

But, if Shelvey is absent, then the only midfielder in Newcastle's ranks with the creativity to unlock Southampton's defence is Merino.

The Spaniard's form will return soon enough - hopefully it does so in time for him to make the difference at St James' Park tomorrow.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 9, 2018
Words:659
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