NEWCASTLE UNITED’S hectic schedule of games is finally taking its toll on Rafael Benitez's team.
The Magpies manager revealed yesterday that defender Ciaran Clark is the latest key player to be sidelined after picking up an injury.
And Benitez admitted that Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Colback are feeling the strain as United head for their seventh match in a month at Birmingham City today.
Clark's absence is a major setback for Benitez, who is likely to call up Grant Hanley to replace the former Aston Villa player after weighing up at least two other options.
Chancel Mbemba, frozen out for most of the season, has impressed Benitez and his coaches in training since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations where he was played in midfield for DR Congo.
However, they still harbour serious doubts about his ability to handle the physical approach of Championship teams, especially in the air.
A growing number of fans are questioning why Mbemba has not been involved and the defender insisted yesterday that he won't give up his fight for a first-team recall.
He said: “Despite my minimal playing time this season, I'm here and I'm not giving up. I continue to train ardently and seriously and I will not give up until I find my place in the team.
"My wish is to come back stronger than ever and satisfy you, my fans, as I was able to do last season in the Premier League."
Benitez insisted yesterday that he was in his thoughts. Asked if Mbemba was a genuine contender for a place, the manager said: "He has been training well, so yes.
"When he came back from the Cup of Nations he missed a couple of games because he had some little problems and the team was doing well.
"Hanley was training well and, when you have to pick the 18 players, sometimes you say 'I don't need another one'. You pick a midfielder or a full-back or a striker.
"If the others are doing well and the team is strong in defence, you don't want to change too many. Then, when you have to put players in the squad, you have to pick players you will need during the game."
Mbemba could offer Benitez an extra option in midfield if he is among the substitutes today. The manager said: "I was watching him in the Africa Cup of Nations games. The tempo of the games was not the best, but he was fine. He's an option."
Benitez is also aware that Paul Dummett is capable of replacing Clark after moving him from left-back when the centre-half was injured against Fulham, but the Welsh international is likely to keep his usual role.
Benitez said: "I put Jesus Gamez on the left-hand side and Dummett as a centre-back because I knew he could do well and also because I was trying to use Jesus to use as a more-offensive full-back, so I know Dummett can play at centre-back."
Dummett has been having injections before games because of a slight injury, which prompted Chris Coleman to leave him out of the latest Wales squad.
"I wasn't involved in that decision," Benitez said. "Paul has a little problem and has had some painkillers and injections, but he can carry on and is making an effort to stay there for us. We didn't need to speak to Wales because they know that he has this little problem."
United hope Clark will be fit to return against Wigan Athletic after the international break when Isaac Hayden could be involved again.
Hayden will return to training on Monday after recovering from an ankle injury, but DeAndre Yedlin faces at least two more weeks on the sidelines.
Hayden's absence means Shelvey and Colback have been regulars in the United engine room and Benitez admitted that the midfielders are feeling the effects of their hectic schedule.
He said: "I could see against Fulham last week that they were a little bit short of legs. To play so many games in a row in a few days is not easy, especially when you have to play very important games, but I'm very pleased with them. You cannot blame them because they were giving everything."
For Benitez, the midfield pair epitomise the approach of a team that must bounce back from their defeat by Fulham.
He said: "This group of players train really well. They realise we are close to the end. We have to stick together and put in extra effort if it's necessary.
"I was very disappointed about losing to a good Fulham team, but we made too many mistakes and lost an opportunity to get three points. The good thing about this division is that you soon have another game.
"We have this game and seven in April, so we just have to think about the future. But it was a reminder that we have to keep working the way we did before. We have to make sure everyone is on their toes and ready."