ALAN PARDEW has challenged Hatem Ben Arfa to fire Newcastle United to derby-day success this lunch-time and help plug the gap left by Yohan Cabaye’s departure.
As anticipated, the transfer window closed last night with the Magpies having failed to secure a midfield replacement for Cabaye, who completed a £20m move to Paris St Germain on Wednesday.
Newcastle officials will rekindle their interest in Lyon’s Clement Grenier and Montpellier’s Remy Cabella in the summer, but for now, Pardew will have to guide his side to the end of the season with significantly reduced resources.
Further departures were avoided yesterday, with Papiss Cisse remaining on Tyneside despite interest from Turkish sides Besiktas and Trabzonspor, but with Loic Remy suspended and Yoan Gouffran unavailable because of injury, the Magpies go into today’s 149th Tyne-Wear derby with Sunderland without this season’s three leading goalscorers.
Shola Ameobi will lead the line with Luuk de Jong not deemed fit enough to start what is sure to be a full-blooded affair, but given that the 32-year-old has not scored a Premier League goal for more than 12 months, all eyes will be on Ben Arfa as Newcastle attempt to avoid a third successive derby defeat.
“Hatem has amazing technical ability,” said Pardew, whose personal derby record reads one win, three draws and two defeats. “He still needs to put together the whole package, but if you were to say that his time is upon him now, you wouldn’t be far wrong.
“Sometimes, I think people look at him and assume he's super confident because of the way he plays. They think he has cast-iron confidence about what he can do, but I don't think he actually is like that.
“I think he does worry about the game and his responsibilities. That has to be taken into account, and I don't want to heap too much pressure on him. As much as I really want him to play well, I don't want to build him up too much.”
Nevertheless, given Newcastle’s lack of potential match-winners, their opponents are sure to have identified Ben Arfa as the key player they have to stop if they are to stage a repeat of last April’s remarkable derby win at St James’.
Two months ago, it looked like Newcastle would be heading into the derby with a huge psychological advantage given that they were eyeing a potential Champions League place while Sunderland were languishing at the foot of the table.
Since then, Newcastle have lost five of their ten Premier League matches and crashed out of the FA Cup, while Sunderland have reached the Capital One Cup final and the fifth round of the FA Cup, and hauled themselves out of the bottom three.
As a result, the visitors would have been heading into today’s game in a buoyant mood whatever happened this week, but the acrimonious exit of Cabaye and Sunderland’s successful acquisition of most of Gustavo Poyet’s main targets has added to the sense of the pre-derby momentum being in the visitors’ favour.
“They are playing well, and you have to take your hat off to him (Poyet) and say he has done a great job so far,” said Pardew. “To get to a cup final, still be in the FA Cup and get out of relegation zone from where they were is a great achievement to Gus and his staff.
“We have to accept they are in a much better place to when we played them last. We have to make sure we are at our very best.”
While Pardew concedes that Newcastle were well beaten in last season’s 3-0 reverse on Tyneside, the Newcastle boss continues to insist his side were unfortunate to lose October’s game at the Stadium of Light.
Fabio Borini’s 84th-minute winner came somewhat out of the blue, with Newcastle having dominated the majority of the second half, but the game might have been different had Steven Fletcher not punished the Magpies’ slow start by scoring from close range in the fifth minute.
Newcastle’s players took far too long to pick up the pace of the game at the Stadium of Light, but Pardew is confident they will not make the same mistake again on home soil.
“We need to show from the start that we’re ready for this big, big fixture,” he said. “Our fans know that for us it is a big game, and we need to take that and show that on the pitch.
“Perhaps we didn’t do that in the first 15 minutes of the game (at Sunderland). That was perhaps the only period I was disappointed with.
“It’s that little bit bigger than any other game because of the emotion that is involved. The fans make it special, particularly at our place, and it is important we rise to that occasion.
“It is a big game for both clubs. It is of no less importance for our three points than it is for Sunderland. We want to maintain our position so we need to win.”
Newcastle completed one deadline-day deal yesterday with fringe defender Curtis Good joining Scottish Premier League side Dundee United on loan until the end of the season.