Newcastle manger Rafa Benitez has claimed midfielder Mikel Merino has been 'unlucky' not to feature more in his debut season for the club, but insinuated that the Spaniard could still be in his future plans.
Merino, who arrived from Bundesliga giants Dortmund in the summer, has made 24 league appearances for the Magpies this season. However, it might have been more if the the 21-year-old had not suffered, what he described as, the 'worst injury of his career' in October, when he was sidelined for a month with a lower-back problem.
He returned to action in a 3-0 loss to Watford in November, but the impressive form of Jonjo Kenny and Mohamed Diame have severely limited his first team opportunities in the second half of the season, and he has made just two league starts since January.
A report in early April claimed that Merino has grown frustrated with at his lack of first team involvement and has consequently told Benitez that he wants to leave St James' Park in the summer, with Athletic Bilbao thought to be keen on a move.
When asked whether Merino would still be a Magpies player next season, Benitez replied, as quoted by the Gazette: “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."