STEVE BRUCE is hoping Federico Fernandez will be available to help ease some of Newcastle United’s defensive problems in this evening’s testing trip to Manchester City.

Fernandez was substituted at the half-time break of last weekend’s home draw with Fulham after showing signs of chronic fatigue that Bruce linked to the recent coronavirus outbreak that tore through the Magpies squad.

The Argentinian was unavailable for Tuesday’s Carabao Cup defeat at Brentford, but was being assessed yesterday in the hope of getting the green light to feature at the Etihad Stadium.

Fernandez has been Newcastle’s most reliable defender this season, and in the continued absence of Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schar, his return would help bolster the Magpies’ backline as attempt to contain a Manchester City side that showed signs of rediscovering their best form as they knocked Arsenal out of the Carabao Cup on Tuesday.

Fernandez’s return would also have the added benefit of enabling Bruce to restore Isaac Hayden to a midfield role this evening rather than having to continue fielding him as an emergency centre-half.

“I sincerely hope we’ll have a few back, certainly in the defensive areas, which then leads to putting midfield players in their right positions,” said the Newcastle boss. “It’s been very difficult for the last week or ten days.

“We have freshened things up, but we are desperately short in defensive areas where it has hit us most badly. We will be looking to freshen things up if we can, and it’s vitally important we do that because we have some big games coming up.”

After taking on Manchester City this evening, Newcastle host reigning champions Liverpool on Wednesday before entertaining second-placed Leicester City next Sunday.

They could hardly have asked for a more difficult festive period, and while they currently enjoy the security of an eight-point cushion to the bottom three, the position could look markedly different by the time the FA Cup third-round rolls around on January 9.

Bruce accepts his side are heading into a difficult spell, but the much-travelled boss will not be getting too hung up on the vagaries of the fixture schedule, even if they threaten to make his own position even more awkward.

“It’s your accumulation of points over a ten-month period that matters,” he said. “If you’re a club like ours, or a club that expects to be in the bottom half of the Premier League, then it’s always tough.

“When you see Arsenal on 14 points, you realise how tough it is. This is what the Premier League is, this is what it throws up, and that will never change.

“You’ve got to be ready for it. There’s going to be periods where you go up and down, and unfortunately we’ve had a bad week.

“But it’s only three or four weeks that we were at Crystal Palace, where we were delighted with the performance, and we then followed that up with the West Brom win. Unfortunately, we’ve had a poor week since. We have to accept it and get on with it.”

In the absence of Lascelles, who is still recovering from Covid, Jonjo Shelvey wore the captain’s armband at Brentford, but the midfielder’s display hardly suggested he is the kind of inspiring leader the Magpies could do with at the moment.

In fairness, it is hard to come up with too many other candidates for the role, and Bruce denies that the demands of the captaincy are having a negative effect on Shelvey, who has been unable to hit top form for the vast majority of the season.

“Jonjo will be disappointed with his performances, like everybody else is, but three weeks ago he was the captain and played very, very well,” said Bruce. “I don’t look at that in terms of the armband.

“But certainly, you’re going to miss your captain, and of course Allan (Saint-Maximin), and a few more of the centre-backs that haven’t been available. Unfortunately, it’s not to be.”

Newcastle (probable, 4-4-2): Darlow; Yedlin, Fernandez, Clark, Dummett; Hendrick, Shelvey, Hayden, Ritchie; Almiron, Wilson.