Just as the unexpected Olympic Gold rush put the Great back into Britain, it is a matter of time before Newcastle United realize their potential.
The last time Newcastle United faced Tottenham Hotspur at home on the first day of a Premiership season, they lost the game 1-0 to a Teddy Sheringham goal yet finished 3rd for the season so the omens are good whatever the result on Saturday for the buoyant black & whites 19 years on. Already, Alan Pardew’s First XI can beat anybody on their day as they proved in a resounding 3-0 defeat of Man United at St James' last season and an equally impressive 2-0 reverse at Chelsea as they soared to a 5th place finish and European qualification. With key players like Steven Taylor back from injury and forgotten men a la Sylvain Marveaux and Sammy Ameobi like new signings, it’s time to expect the unexpected once again from Pardew’s pioneers.
That all-important factor in football and Newcastle possess it in abundance since bottoming out in 2008/09. Promoted as Champions with ease at the first time of asking in 09/10, The Magpies bounced straight back to a respectable 12th position in 10/11 and raised the bar even higher last season with a superbly impressive 5th placed finish to guarantee Europa League football. The challenge next season for Alan Pardew is to maintain this upward momentum with demonstrable progress clearly a Top 4 Champions League spot. While many see a lengthy European campaign as a distraction, playing against the second tier of Europe on a regular basis will take the club’s game to the next level. Only when playing against better teams do you improve and exposure to continental tactics, styles, methodologies and players will speed up the club’s evolution remarkably and prepare for life in The Champion's League.
Manger of the Year : Silverfox, Silverware
In Alan Pardew, Newcastle United possess the most forward-thinking manager in the English game and one who rightfully won both Manager of the Year awards last season. Combining superb man-management with a strategist’s mind, Pardew is the real deal and so on-the-pulse tactically, he gives old masters such as Sir Alan Ferguson, against whom he has a very impressive record, a real run for their money.
Beginning the 2011/2 campaign with a steady 4-4-2 formation, Newcastle evolved into an exciting 4-3-3 in 2012 as they went on a superb run to clinch that coveted Europa spot. Expect further innovation from the dynamic Pardew as he seeks to get the best out of his Senegalese strike force, possibly in a 4-3-1-2 formation, weave future stars such as Sammy Ameobi into the line-up, unleash the vision and goal-scoring ability of Cabaye in the final third and coax even more from his French no. 10 genius Hatem Ben Arfa.
Tim Krul’s NUFC-record breaking 15 clean sheets in his first full season between the posts at Newcastle United should have earned him the Dutch goalkeeper’s top for The Euros yet his country ignored his claims and limped out the competition while NUFC rightly rewarded a string of game-winning performances with the no. 1 shirt this season. His shot-stopping, commanding presence was worth a good twenty points to The Magpies as he proved a Northern rock behind the Newcastle defence.
Will The Real Newcastle Defence Please Stand Up?
In front of the dependable Krul is a back four capable of shutting out Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United on their best days and conceding 5 at Fulham and 4 at Wigan and Norwich on their worst.
Until November when Steven Taylor was injured, Newcastle possessed the best defensive record of the 92 League clubs and if anyone is due an injury-free season, it’s the inspirational former England U21 Captain who can emerge as a true contender for Brazil 2014. Mike Williamson proved an able deputy post-Xmas after a winter of relative discontent at the back, crashing 4-2 at Norwich without a recognised centre in the ranks, though Williamson’s return certainly gave the United back-line the stability it had missed.
Danny Simpson at right-back picks himself, leading the League in goal-line clearances as a virtual ever-present, Captain Argentina Collocini has rightly been been recalled to his full national squad after a fantastic season earning him a place in the Premier XI and Pardew can pick from the energetic, goal-scoring Steven Taylor or the more calming presence of Mike Williamson to partner him. It’s at left-back where the main dilemma is : while Santon has impressed going forward, he remains suspect defensively while Ryan Taylor was a revelation there at the start of last season, only really being found out away to The Champions. Gutierrez and new signing Anita also have experience in the position.
With the extra games in Europe, the acquisition of young central defender Curtis Good from Melbourne is a step in the right direction yet Newcastle fans and management alike will rest a lot easier if and when long-term targets Douglas and Debuchy materialize.
For Thine Is the Midfield, The Power and the Glory
When both were fit, the midfield partnership that developed quickly between Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye was as good a pair as the League possessed : the iron fist in velvet glove approach of the Frenchman dovetailing exceptionally with the raw power of the Ivorian destroyer. Add the tireless running of Argentine Jonas Gutierrez as Alan Pardew did as he switched to a 4-3-3 in the latter part of the season and Newcastle boasted an engine room to rival any in the League. Add the exciting £7M signing of Dutch international young gun Vurnon Anita - 'the new Clarence Seedorf' - to the mix and it seems Alan Pardew is transferring Mike Ashley’s business reputation - “He likes to park his tanks on people’s lawns” - onto the football pitches of The Premier League and Europe.
Hatem Ben Arfa : Licence To Skill
My prediction for Premiership Player of the Season, United’s no. 10 playmaker-turned-winger whose monstrous talent has only been seen in lightning flashes so far in England yet like the new MonToon season of storms on Tyneside could wash away the competition before him. Forget Silva, Modric, Hazard, Kagiwara, Cazorla or any of the other pretenders, Hatem Ben Arfa is the most naturally gifted player in The Premier and his statement that Newcastle could win the League carries the weight of a man who won 5 titles in France before his 24th birthday. And after a Euros in which his ability to score, dribble and create was tragically overlooked and led to France’s early exit, albeit to Spain, he’ll be in the mood to prove just what the world has been missing out on.
Quality Youth Bubbling Under & Strength In Depth
Although transfer activity has been modest so far, the acquisition of more exciting youngsters to roll off The Graham Carr Factory Production Line in the shape of Coventry’s Gael Bigirimana, Melbourner's Curtis Good and Romain Amalfitano from Reims to join an exciting development group already comprising James Tavernier, Sammy Ameobi, Haris Vuckic, Shane Ferguson and Mehdi Abeid means there is a wealth of highly talented youth bubbling under in the ranks of the Tyneside club. My pick of the youngsters is Sammy Ameobi whose gliding, goal-scoring potential on either wing or up front puts him in the £10M+ bracket if he can stay fit and disciplined as he emerges from the ranks.
With Newcastle starring in four competitions this season and an extended run in The Europa League a strong possibility, there is plenty of opportunity for first team football to give Alan Pardew healthy rotation and selection dilemmas. With the likes of James Perch, Ryan Taylor and Dan Gosling all competing for more defensive places and options in the attacking sphere including Gabriel Obertan, Sylvain Marveaux and a raring-to-go Shola Ameobi and the reportedly thin squad begins to look a lot healthier. Add an Andy Carroll or other marquee signing up front to replace the departed Leon Best and Peter Lovenkrands and a couple of last-minute deals and it becomes a group of players more than able to compete on all four fronts.
The average football fan would have been hard-pushed to name the Senegal strike force at the start of the 2011/12 season yet 29 goals between them later and Double Demba Duo Ba and Cisse will feature heavily in Fantasy teams being picked around the country this time around. In the first half of the season, Demba Ba notched 15 in his first 16 games to erase any doubts as to why Newcastle snapped him up on a free within 24 hours of the transfer window opening last summer and Papiss Cisse’s record-breaking impact of 13 goals in 14 games following his move in January quickly justified his £9M fee and inheritance of the iconic no. 9 black & white shirt. From penalties to direct free-kicks, headers to left and right foot strikes, both seemingly can score in any way from anywhere particularly Cisse who was holding his own Goal of the Season contest with worldy after worldy. The frightening thing for opposition defences is that they didn’t hit top form together and when Alan Pardew figures out how to unleash their goalscoring talents in tandem, they could be the Premier League’s most potent strike force.
Titanic Improvement From The Magpies
Just as the unexpected Olympic Gold rush put the Great back into Britain as London staged the games, it is a matter of time before Newcastle United win something and realize their enormous potential. Last season’s 5th place was the first time Newcastle had punched anywhere near their true weight since 2004’s 5th place finish under Sir Bobby Robson and like Kevin Keegan believed, NUFC’s potential is immeasurable. With a heavyweight line-up of Krul; Simpson, Taylor, Collocini, Gutierrez; Cabaye, Tiote, Anita; Ben Arfa, Ba and Cisse backed by real quality in the squad ranks, expect a few more noses to be bloodied and put out of joint this season. One hundred years ago, an “unsinkable” and expensive vessel called The Titanic crashed into an iceberg that had emerged in Northern waters and sunk without trace : a century later and another Northern giant has quietly risen from the deep and although the warning bells have been sounded, few have taken real notice and the rest of the expensively-assembled Premiership may be equally unprepared to face a similar Fate once again should Alan Pardew prioritise the League over Cups.
Champions : Manchester United
Runners Up : Manchester City
3rd : Newcastle United
4th : Arsenal
5th : Chelsea
Relegated : Sunderland, Liverpool, West Ham