Newcastle head into the final five weeks of the campaign in something of a mid-table no-man’s land – too far adrift of the top six positions to make a push for Europe, but 20 points clear of the relegation zone and therefore in no danger of the drop.
On the evidence of last weekend’s 4-0 defeat at St Mary’s, a number of Newcastle players have already switched off for the summer, with others perhaps more interested in protecting themselves ahead of a possible appearance at the World Cup finals.
Pardew, who was quick to brand his side’s performance on the south coast as “unacceptable”, accepts that a possible lack of motivation could be an issue.
But the Magpies manager has spent this week reminding his players of their responsibilities to the club and supporters, and warning that he will not tolerate a repeat in the remaining six games.
“It’s difficult when you get to an area of the season where there are no real goals for you, other than a league position,” admitted Pardew. “That’s something we’ve been trying to focus the guys’ minds on.
“I think we’re in a difficult place, I make no bones about that. We’re on 46 points and have a few excuses in terms of injuries, so it’s easy to go, ‘Oh well, okay, the summer’s not far away’. But I’ve certainly made it very clear to the players that that’s something that cannot happen.
“We can’t do that in front of 52,000 people paying good money to come through the door. We have to put on a performance that shows real commitment. Whatever you’d say about Man United’s performance in the week (against Bayern Munich), they did show a real commitment, and so did Southampton (last weekend).
“We didn’t combat that desire from Southampton – there’s was certainly greater – but I don’t think that will be the case on Saturday. And when you have desire on the pitch, other things fall into place.”
The task facing Newcastle tomorrow became even greater earlier this week when Moussa Sissoko was diagnosed with a hamstring strain that will keep him sidelined for up to three weeks.
The midfielder has returned to France to receive treatment on the injury, meaning Pardew is likely to start with both Hatem Ben Arfa and Luuk de Jong in the side.
With Tim Krul, Mathieu Debuchy and Loic Remy also injured, and Yohan Cabaye having left to join Paris St Germain, Sissoko’s absence means Newcastle will be without five of the players that started December’s 1-0 win at Old Trafford, a game that already seems an awfully long time ago given everything that has happened since.
“We’ve got a real injury crisis at the moment,” said Pardew. “We’ve lost Moussa this week, and he’s been a terrific player for us and has had a great season. He was still finding his feet a little bit last season, but this year has served him well. And I think he will get better.
“He is still a young player, and it’s a shame he has not completed all the games, but he will be back before the end of the season.”
It had initially been hoped that Remy would be available to face Manchester United, but the striker’s recovery from a calf problem has not gone to plan and he is still to return to full training.
His most recent scans revealed continued inflammation, and he will have another set of scans on Tuesday to see if he has a chance of being considered for the trip to Stoke City in eight days time.
“We thought he was going to be fit, maybe do two days training, and make the bench with an option of coming on in the last 20 minutes,” said Pardew. “He’s now in the boat for next week.
“The scans show a slight bit of inflammation and we’re going to have to scan him again to make sure it’s gone. If it has, then there’s a chance.
“We don’t think Debuchy is going to have a chance for Stoke, but maybe the week after that (when Newcastle entertain Swansea). Tim might be available for next week.”
Newcastle have not recorded a league double over Manchester United since 1931, but David Moyes’ side will travel to Tyneside lying outside the European places in seventh position.
They have been bitterly disappointing for the majority of the season, but finally showed some glimpses of life as they held Bayern Munich to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday.
“It’s going to be difficult against Man United because they have had a little upsurge, particularly against Munich when they were terrific,” said Pardew. “They will bring that bounce in their step to our place, and we are on the back of a really poor result and performance.
“You would have to say everything points to them winning, so it is up to us to make sure we can turn that around.”
* Liam Smith and Gael Bigirimana were on target yesterday afternoon as Newcastle’s development team suffered a 3-2 defeat at Southampton.