Monday, April 9, 2012
Ben Arfa helps demolish Toon cliches
Andy Brassell at St James' Park
Every morning before training, Hatem Ben Arfa takes breakfast at the palatial Jesmond Dene House hotel, overlooking the beatific, mazy park sculpted by Lord Armstrong in the 1860s. If it is a setting that seems out of step with the image of a man caricatured as the ultimate enfant terrible, it is representative of a change in his outlook; a switch which could be said to represent the modern Newcastle United in microcosm.
• Newcastle 2-0 Bolton
The jubilation provoked by Ben Arfa's magical solo goal, which broke a determined Bolton, was a world away from the gentle birdsong of the park, even if it might have recalled the winding variety of its dips and streams in the mind of its scorer. Certainly the Frenchman was on his own plain of consciousness, from the moment he left the unfortunate Sam Ricketts on his backside in the centre circle at the genesis of his surge towards goal.
Reprising his man of mystery role, Ben Arfa dashed off to Paris for a well-earned few days off shortly after the whistle, rather than bask in the glory of his exploits with a still-stunned media throng.
What will be less celebrated - but is perhaps even more notable - is that Ben Arfa's clearance in the right-back position began the movement which ended in the decisive second goal, rolled in by the prolific Papiss Demba Cisse.
Ben Arfa's willingness to work in his own half, as well as the opposition's, has seen him step out of his pigeonholing as the archetypal luxury player. His first touch of the match was an example, as he recouped Chris Eagles' long cross in the opening minutes and ran the ball out to safety.
This is all part of the new realism manifesting itself under Alan Pardew, a world away from the image of a club basking in self-delusion, that frequent barb of years past. It was on display on Good Friday at Swansea's Liberty Stadium, where Brendan Rodgers' side had almost 80% of possession time and four times as many shots, but were ruthlessly picked off. A similar dig-in-and-wait approach was required here.
A rise in status tends to be more apparent in the reactions of others towards you than any shift in self-perception. So maybe the most eloquent summary of Newcastle's progress is that Bolton arrived in the north-east primed to smother a side they had humbled 5-1 at the Reebok Stadium last season.
Yet adaptability has been the name of the game for Newcastle, possessed as they are of a worthy but ostensibly limited squad liberally sprinkled with stardust. Those limitations threatened to derail a promising campaign as winter set in, but recent times have seen every sinew of Pardew's group stretch and dig deeper than anyone thought capable.
Another change was required against Bolton, with Cheick Tiote dropping out through injury and the versatile James Perch slotting into his midfield spot. Widely ridiculed earlier in the campaign, Perch has been viewed in a new light in recent weeks. Now the home crowd sing "we've got Perchinho" in homage to his new Twitter-inspired nickname.
Perch is one of the squad members whose willingness has kept a promising season on the boil as Chelsea and Tottenham show signs of fallibility just above in the fringes of the Champions League spots. Still, in keeping with the personnel difficulties dogging Pardew, he only made it to half-time before being replaced by Shane Ferguson. Jonas Gutierrez, perhaps the only player deployed in more different posts than Perch, replaced him in the centre of midfield as Ferguson headed left.
After a zesty opening in which the Magpies pinged the ball around crisply, the pace became more of a typical late season wade through treacle, faced with a Bolton side nervously looking over their shoulders having been spanked by Fulham on Saturday. Owen Coyle's men were accordingly circumspect and doughty. The boss reverted to the reliable Kevin Davies to absorb and dish out at the front, withdrawing the rest to a respectful distance on the cusp of the centre circle.
It took Bolton past the interval to realise that they might be able to aim a little higher. Within a few minutes of the restart, Tim Krul was required to bail out a sleeping defence with a sprawling block from Eagles. When Martin Petrov's fizzing cross-cum-shot narrowly missed being diverted into the Newcastle net, Pardew's touchline ire was matched by a swell of vocal anxiety from the stands.
Coyle had every right to praise his players' efforts after the match, saying they were "terrific," but he eventually proved less adept at shuffling his pack than his counterpart. Shola Ameobi made a splash, perhaps less gloriously than he had in the Tyne-Wear derby, but still making a significant contribution after replacing Demba Ba, who hasn't scored since the win over Aston Villa on February 5. His strength on the ball created an opening, and the subsequent cross for Cisse's goal shows he still has a role to play here.
In the end, it was difficult to shift the focus from Ben Arfa, even if Pardew admitted for the first time that Champions League qualification is a possibility. The coach passionately made the case for Ben Arfa's re-inclusion in the France squad ahead of Euro 2012.
"He can make the difference in the tight games like this, and he did today," the boss observed. "His work-rate was phenomenal." Moments like his goal light the way and fire the imagination, but it's the small contributions from every corner of the collective that make Newcastle enduring.