HATEM BEN ARFA is effectively on trial for the final nine games of the season, with Alan Pardew hinting the Newcastle United winger could be moved on in the summer if his performances and attitude do not improve.
Ben Arfa has not been involved in the last three matches, with an injury and a family issue combining to make him unavailable, but the Frenchman will be back on the substitutes' bench as Newcastle entertain Crystal Palace this afternoon.
He is the most polarising figure in the current Magpies squad, with his undoubted technical ability having to be balanced against a questionable work rate and occasional lack of commitment on the training ground.
Having been a pivotal figure at the start of the season, when he started eight of the opening nine matches and scored crucial goals against Fulham and Aston Villa, the 27-year-old has made just four Premier League starts since the end of October.
Pardew clearly has reservations about his ability to buy into Newcastle's team ethic, and with major changes expected once the transfer window reopens in the summer, Ben Arfa is the most high-profile of a group of players who are effectively playing for their future in the next two months.
“Hatem needs a good finish to the season, and he's aware of that for a number of reasons,” said Pardew. “The bottom line with Hatem is this, and don't assume that I have a problem with his work rate.
“If he's getting assists and goals, then that balances itself out. But if he isn't, then it isn't balancing up. He needs to get that balance right.
“There has to be a balance between him delivering for us in an offensive way, and for us to be able to keep the discipline of the team intact with him in the side.
“Hatem is in a pool of players that you can ask, 'Is he going to be a success here?' If it is, then they stay. If it's not, then we'll move them on.”
The inference in Pardew's words is clear. In the past, there have been times where the negative aspects of Ben Arfa's play – an unwillingness to track back, a lack of ground covered, a selfishness in possession – have been outweighed by his ability to influence the outcome of a game by scoring or providing assists.
However, he has scored just once since the middle of September, admittedly in a limited number of appearances, and has been a peripheral presence in a number of his most recent matches.
To further complicate matters, it is understood that a number of Ben Arfa's team-mates have begun to question his contribution, making his selection even more of a balancing act from Pardew's perspective. Maintaining team morale is clearly a major part of the manager's brief, and Ben Arfa's general demeanour makes his case a delicate one to handle.
“I don't think I've ever lost patience with any player,” said Pardew. “I've been accused of that in the past, but that's never been truthful. I've not lost patience with him, but he has to gain the trust of not just me, but also of our players and our fans, that he's the real deal if he's going to play.
“In the short term, we've given him a fitness programme because, in the last few games he played for us, he didn't play very well by his own admission. His confidence is a little low, and his fitness was also a bit low for whatever reason.
“He missed six days with a family illness, so we've got some extra work into him and he looks a little bit more confident. He's not ready to play and start (today's) game, but he will be on the bench.”
In the absence of Ben Arfa and Loic Remy, Newcastle will be relying on Papiss Cisse, Yoan Gouffran and Luuk de Jong as they look to bounce back from last weekend's 1-0 defeat at Fulham.
De Jong has made six appearances without scoring since signing on loan from Borussia Monchengladbach, but Pardew feels the 23-year-old Dutchman has made some significant progress as he attempts to secure a permanent move to Tyneside in the summer.
His movement and hold-up play has certainly improved in recent weeks, although Pardew concedes that the pressure will continue to build if he continues to go without a goal.
“I like Luuk's application, and he's given us a bit of presence up top,” he said. “He needs to convert that into goals, and I think that pressure is building, as it does with Papiss week by week when they don't score.
“But I look at (Wilfried) Bony at Swansea and what happened with him. He didn't score for three or four games, but then the goals came.
“That happens with all strikers because they can suddenly just come alive. Look at what happened to Robin van Persie (on Wednesday). People were saying his body language was awful the week before, and that he didn't want to play for his manager, but then he smashes in a hat-trick in the Champions League, his first one.”