MEANDERING miscreant or maverick match winner? When it comes to Hatem Ben Arfa, opinion tends to be sharply divided.

Take Newcastle's Boxing Day win over Bolton for example. One minute, more than 4,000 travelling supporters were lauding the Frenchman for the clinical strike that set up a deserved 2-0 win. The next, his manager, Alan Pardew, was berating him for tamely conceding possession to Chris Eagles and then failing to track the Bolton substitute back towards Newcastle's penalty area.

There, in a nutshell, was the equation that needs weighing up. Do you accept the 24-year-old's defensive limitations in order to maximise your side's attacking threat, or is it better to limit your attacking ambitions in order to guarantee some midfield protection in front of the back four?

For most of the current campaign, Pardew has adopted the latter approach, restricting Ben Arfa to just three Premier League starts and six substitute appearances. Yes, the winger missed the whole of pre-season as he completed his recovery from a double leg break. But for all that Pardew continues to talk of the lingering effects of Ben Arfa's injury, it is impossible not to feel that the manager's pleadings are something of a smokescreen for an understandable distrust of his most volatile player's individualism.

And yet, as he prepares for this evening's trip to Merseyside to face Liverpool, Pardew can be in no doubt about what his club's fans would like him to do.

In their eyes, Ben Arfa has become a cause celebre, a figure that harks back to the era of the Entertainers when Newcastle swash-buckled their way into the Champions League. There is a massive respect for everything Pardew and his hard-working side have achieved this season, but show a Newcastle supporter a maverick attacker and you're still guaranteed to get the juices flowing.

Will Ben Arfa start tonight? Unlikely. For all that Leon Best has not scored a goal in any of his last nine appearances, Pardew admires the Irishman's work ethic. For all that he denied Ben Arfa was an “impact player” in the wake of his Reebok Stadium heroics, Newcastle's manager is still to be persuaded that his side's number ten is capable of hitting the heights for a full 90 minutes.

Speak to the rest of the Newcastle squad, though, and their respect for Ben Arfa's talents is obvious. “He's just about impossible to train against,” said Mike Williamson. “You just have to drop off if you can because if you get too close to him, he'll embarrass you.”

Gabriel Obertan was even more effusive, claiming Ben Arfa's perceived weaknesses were generally overplayed and denying that his compatriot put in less physical effort than his team-mates.

“Hatem is a great player and a great talent,” said Obertan. “I can understand why he can sometimes be frustrating because he looks as though he is not giving everything he has. Knowing him like I do though, that is not the case.

“He is a hard worker, it is just that the way he is and the way he plays sometimes makes it look as though he is not trying as hard as some other players. As a squad, we all know what a great talent he is. If he keeps working hard and giving his all in training, he is going to be a really big hit for this team.

“Some people criticise him for what he cannot do, but we know he is a player who is capable of unlocking situations and that is a great skill to have. In a game like the one at Bolton, it was always going to take something special to break them down. It was hard to find a gap, but Hatem did it.”

The result was Newcastle's eighth win of the season and the end of a six-game winless run that began with difficult fixtures against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, but went on to encompass more inviting matches with Norwich, Swansea and West Brom.

Tonight's game at Anfield pits the Magpies back against one of the current top six, and brings the curtain down on a year that has been better than even the most ardent supporter can have expected.

It has elevated some unlikely names into the national spotlight. Demba Ba, unable to pass a medical at Stoke last January, but ending 2011 with at least 21 Premier League goals to his name. Ryan Taylor, derided as a sub-standard Championship player for most of last season, but now an integral member of the fifth-best defence in the top-flight. And Obertan, surplus to requirements at Old Trafford but greatly valued at Newcastle despite the protestations of a minority of supporters who bemoan his occasional lack of end product.

“It's been a great six months for me,” said Obertan. “It's the first time I've had a season like this in England, where I've been playing in pretty much every game. That helps a lot. It's a great feeling to feel like you're really involved in something, and I have been waiting quite a while for this.

“When you come on for 20 minutes once every five or six games, you're always straining to try to prove yourself. That is really hard. It is nice not to have to do that any more.”