JUST when it looked like Newcastle United might have solved the latest problem to beset them, another appeared. It has been that kind of season
Today ought to be one of celebration.
Albeit unconvincingly after a 1-1 draw, the Magpies are through to the next round of the Europa League. That is the problem though.
Anyone who honestly believes this competition is worth the effort ought to have been at St James’ Park last night.
With their strongest team yet in the competition and even for the first time in their proper colours, plus the carrot of continuing their first European adventure in five seasons beyond Christmas, it should have been an exciting night under the lights.
But there is something about the unnecessarily dragged-out Europa League that can suck all enthusiasm from you.
The fresh faces emitting their high-pitch screams had largely thinned out in a 21,632 crowd not helped by Maritimo’s “Where’d you park your minibus” following. Even with seven first-choices playing (one was suspended, two injured), it felt like a nothing game.
The only positive about playing such feeble opposition – David Simao’s dragged 42nd-minute shot was hardly worth the wait – is you can experiment. And Alan Pardew needed to.
With no Yohan Cabaye for the next six weeks or so, Newcastle’s manager needed some creativity in central midfield. To find it he turned to a plan long since abandoned.
This time last year Pardew saw Hatem Ben Arfa as a No.10 and nothing else. He argued the Frenchman could not play anywhere else.
But in January Ben Arfa turned an FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers from the right wing, and has stayed there more or less ever since. He even got into France’s Euro 2012 squad.
Left with only worthy but functional midfielders to choose from, Pardew experimented with Ben Arfa back in the hole on his European debut for the Magpies.
“We’ve tried to get Ben Arfa to play high up the pitch,” coach Steve Stone explained in the programme.
Ben Arfa has been indispensable to Newcastle in a season of struggle, and was just starting to warm to his reprised role when injury struck. Going down under Simao’s heavy challenge, Ben Arfa looked to be suffering a fair amount of discomfort in his right hamstring when he finally limped off. Pardew will be anxiously pestering his medical team for news today.
In his short sleeves and gloves combination, Ben Arfa was slow to warm up, but after about 20 minutes, he finally took hold of the game.
He embarked on a run down the inside-right channel he so often frequents and went past two men, but stumbled as a third and the goal-line approached.
The off-key Papiss Cissé tried to find Ben Arfa a couple of minutes later but needed Gael Bigirmana to win the ball back and do it for him. Ben Arfa picked out Sylvain Marveaux, who himself surged down the right and played the ball through Romain Salin’s legs to open the scoring from a tightish angle.
Ben Arfa was clearly growing in confidence, though it nearly cost him as he dwelt on the ball a little too close to his centre-backs.
On 37 minutes the home fans were celebrating, but it turned out to be the worst moment of the night.
Ben Arfa had played the ball through for Cissé to put in the net.
But not for the first time, Cissé had strayed offside –by the tightest of margins – and Ben Arfa had been hit by a hefty tackle as he played the pass. It ended his evening.
Forget glory and certainly forget riches, what Newcastle have got out of the Europa League more than anything is injuries.
Whether directly, or through the fatigue extra matches have caused, a small squad has been unable to cope.
Now they must contemplate looking elsewhere for the je ne sais quoi that was one of Pardew’s favourite phrases last season.
Sammy Ameobi showed flickers on the run and in the fizzing, dipping shot which forced a 52nd-minute save, but a desperate second-half display underlined how replacing Ben Arfa and Cabaye will be a tall order.
Pardew will be hoping he does not find out just how tall.