Rafa Benitez coy on '˜unlucky' Mikel Merino's Newcastle future
Rafa Benitez says Mikel Merino is 'unlucky' to have spent the second half of the season on Newcastle United's bench.
Merino impressed in the first half of the Premier League campaign.
But the midfielder has found his opportunities limited by the form of Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame since the turn of the year.
Merino – who suffered a back injury in October – said last weekend that he would “clear his mind” in the summer after a frustrating few months.
The 21-year-old, signed from Borussia Dortmund last year, has been linked with Basque clubs Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad.
Asked if Merino would still be a United player next season, manager Benitez said: “I think that he was unlucky with that injury and also Jonjo and Diame were playing much better.
“We have to understand that when you talk about players in the same position ... we can say ‘Merino is really good, better than Shelvey’, but if we’ve had words about that, it means something is right, because both are good players.
“But when one is so bad that nobody’s talking about him, something is wrong.
“In this case, we are lucky enough to have (Isaac) Hayden, Mikel, Jonjo and more, because all of them can play.
“When the team is playing well, I don’t think there’s a massive difference between one or the other one.
“They are different in terms of characteristics, but the team could do well with one or the other one.”
Meanwhile, injured pair Ciaran Clark and Christian Atsu are unavailable for tomorrow’s home game against Chelsea, along with the suspended Islam Slimani, who left the club last week ahead of the expiry of his loan from Leicester City.
On-loan Kenedy is also ineligible to play against his parent club.
“We have Clark and Atsu missing, the rest are available, except for Slimani,” said Benitez. “Kenedy’s not available.”