ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN will make an eagerly-awaited return to Newcastle’s matchday squad at Aston Villa this evening, with Steve Bruce admitting the Frenchman is integral to his side’s preferred “counter-attacking style”.

Saint-Maximin has been absent since late November after a series of adverse reactions to a coronavirus infection prevented him from returning to training.

The forward returned to his native France to recuperate, and only returned to full training at the end of last week. He will not be involved in this evening’s starting line-up at Villa Park, but will be named among the substitutes with Bruce confident he is ready to be called upon if required.

“The good news for everybody is that Saint-Maximin is in the squad,” said the Newcastle boss. “He’s come through all week and trained well. He looks to be in decent shape, which is important. There’s no doubt at this particular moment in time that that will give everybody a huge lift because we know how important he is, especially in the forward area. He’s the player that we look to for a bit of creativity.

“We have monitored everything we can this week to see where he is in terms of his fitness, and it’s fair to say his fitness levels are very, very good, which is good news. Of course, we’ve got to get the balance right. I wouldn’t expect him to be starting (at Villa), but he’ll be in and among the squad and there if he’s needed.”

There was a stage last month when Newcastle’s medical staff genuinely feared Saint-Maximin’s adverse reaction to his Covid infection could make a lasting mark on his body.

Thankfully, that does not appear to have been the case, although as Jamaal Lascelles and Federico Fernandez have discovered in recent weeks, further negative reactions can occur when the body is pushed to its limits during a competitive game.

Saint-Maximin’s physical statistics will be monitored closely for the remainder of the season, but for now, Bruce and his staff are simply relieved to have the 23-year-old back in the first-team fold.

“The one thing Allan wants to do is run around and play football,” said the Newcastle boss. “That gives him joy, and it was good to see him in the last week or so because he's bounced around the training ground.

“He’s just delighted to be given the go-ahead that he's okay, and thankfully this virus hasn't scarred any of the organs which it attacked. Let's hope he can come and give us a spark because certainly the team needs it. It needs that bit of flair, style, arrogance, swagger and pace that we have been missing at the top end of the pitch. Let's hope he comes and gives it straightaway again.”

Saint-Maximin signed a new long-term contract shortly before his Covid reaction, and Bruce regards him as absolutely integral to his preferred style of play.

“He’s arguably our most creative player, the Player of the Year, so of course you’re going to miss him, and we have missed him for the best part of a couple of months,” he said. “When he was in and around the team, we looked a threat. We could play that little bit deeper and play teams on the counter-attack.

“If you are a mainly counter-attacking team, then you have to have pace on the turnover, and without Allan, we haven’t got that blistering pace that he possesses. We’re delighted to see him back. He will certainly make us a bit more entertaining, and he will certainly help us win a few games.”

While Saint-Maximin will be back in the squad at Villa Park, Federico Fernandez, Ciaran Clark and Paul Dummett are all unavailable because of fitness or injury issues.

Newcastle (probable, 4-4-2): Darlow; Yedlin, Lascelles, Schar, Lewis; Almiron, Hayden, S Longstaff, Ritchie; Carroll, Wilson.