HATEM Ben Arfa is still on track to make his long-awaited comeback at the end of this month despite being laid low by an illness.
The Frenchman has been struck down for the past week with a mystery virus, which meant he was forced to cancel an event in Paris yesterday where he was due to launch a charity.
And this means Ben Arfa will miss both of Newcastle United’s Europa League ties against Metalist Kharkiv.
However, while this has set back the Magpies’ inspirational No 10, Alan Pardew remains hopeful that the playmaker will be back in the squad to face Southampton in the Premier League on February 24.
The Newcastle United manager said: “Hatem is genuinely sick and has missed four or five days’ work on the training ground.
“He has a good chance of being available for Southampton, but is doubtful for the two European games. We initially thought he would be involved in those.”
Liverpool were this week linked with a move for Ben Arfa, a story that originally emerged from the Merseyside media. “To be honest, that comes and goes, I get it all the time. I have not really thought about it,” said Pardew.
“Ben Arfa gives us something we don’t otherwise have in the squad. You cannot get away from that.
“He can ghost past people as if they are not there, as he has shown in certain situations, and his workrate has improved dramatically so that he has become a major function for us.
“So I am really looking forward to seeing him back.”
The need to rush Ben Arfa back into the side has been eased by the immediate impact made by the new signings who face a daunting task against an in-form Tottenham at White Hart Lane tomorrow.
The feelgood factor has certainly returned among the supporters after two good wins, which the manager has welcomed like a long-lost friend.
Pardew said: “A lot of the guys have been away since the Chelsea game, but what I do know is that among the training ground staff, the fans and people I meet there is definitely a different mood about the team.
“I think that is important for the city because this city lives and breathes its football, and when we have been struggling like we have been, I don’t think it’s good for anyone.
“I can sense everyone has picked up from that and from the messages I got, everyone walked away from the game, for the first time in a long time, feeling really good. There’s a real optimism and that does spread down, certainly of those that have stayed, and there is a renewed energy on the training ground.
“Everyone has had to pick their game up a little bit.
“The performance against Chelsea obviously raised a few eyebrows in terms of us as a club and that’s what we’ve been wanting for a long time.”
Cheick Tioté returned this week from his stint at the African Cup of Nations with the Ivory Coast and spent no time reminding everyone what they have been missing. Pardew revealed: “Steve Stone had to join in training today because we did not have enough bodies, and he had to keep out of the way of Cheick a few times, trust me.
“It is brilliant to have him back. I still think he is one of our best players.
“This year has been difficult for him to build on last year career-wise, but he is certainly one of our top three players and, hopefully, he can get back to that level he was at when he was absolutely phenomenal last season.”
Two wins, and a draw at Norwich, have put Newcastle in a better position, if some way from a good one.
The fact remains that this season, for the moment, is still about staying out of a relegation scrap. Pardew said: “We’re in a much healthier position, but we’re still not out of trouble.
“We don’t want to be where we are in the league.
“When you get a couple of victories like that you start to look up the table. You look at Reading who were bottom and I bet they’re looking up today. Brian McDermott is manager of the month and congratulations to him because he deserves it.
“That’s how you are in the Premier League. It’s about momentum; we’ve got a bit of momentum and we need to keep it.”