Newcastle boss Steve Bruce reckons his side’s season could be defined by this calendar year’s remaining fixtures, as two key stars plan their comebacks.
The Magpies play at Bruce’s former club Aston Villa on Monday and host champions Manchester City a week on Saturday before diving into a hectic schedule in December.
“I said coming into this run of games, after the international break, this next five or six weeks is probably the defining part of the season,” Bruce said.
“The games come thick and fast. I think we’ve got six or seven games in December, which is ridiculous, so it will define the season and where we’re going to be.”
Newcastle head to Villa after back-to-back Premier League wins – at West Ham and against Bournemouth – which have taken some of the sting out of the fan criticism Bruce has faced since taking on the job in July.
“The difference in a couple of weeks and a couple of wins and what it does, especially to a club like ours, is remarkable,” he said.
“The players are bouncing around the place, training is as lively as it’s ever been and they’re all champing at the bit.
“Of course we’ve picked up one or two knocks but we’ve got one or two getting back fit so let’s hope we can keep the run going.”
Ciaran Clark is an injury doubt for Monday after sustaining a knock while on international duty for the Republic of Ireland, while fellow defender and skipper Jamaal Lascelles is sidelined due to a fractured tibia.
But Bruce confirmed two other defenders, Florian Lejeune and Fabian Schar, could make a timely return to action at Villa Park.
Frenchman Lejeune has yet to appear this season after rupturing an anterior cruciate knee ligament in April, while Switzerland centre-back Schar has been out with a knee problem since mid-October.
“(Lejeune) is now ready to go and the same goes for Schar too,” Bruce added. “As long as they come through the next two or three days unscathed then both of them will come into contention and that can only be a good thing.”
Winger Matt Ritchie remains sidelined after his recent setback when returning to training following ankle ligament damage.
Bruce confirmed Ritchie consulted a specialist on Wednesday for a second opinion after having minor surgery last month.