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Ben Arfa is the Frenchman Newcastle cannot afford to be without
Final Score: Newcastle 1 Fulham 0
WITH the transfer window due to close at 11pm tonight, Newcastle United boast a mercurial French midfielder they cannot afford to lose if they are serious about their desire to make marked improvements from last season. His name, however, is not Yohan Cabaye.
Yes, the sale of Cabaye to either Arsenal or Paris St Germain would inflict a major blow to Newcastle's ambitions. The France international would be almost impossible to replace at such late notice – and given the Magpies' track record, even the desire to replace him could not be taken for granted – and his creativity, range of passing and leadership role among the club's French contingent mark him out as a key component of Alan Pardew's squad.
Yet alternative midfield options exist, and while the scenario is far from ideal – when is it ever with Newcastle – it is possible to imagine the club muddling through until January if Cabaye was to leave.
Hatem Ben Arfa on the other hand? Now that really would be a nightmare situation. If anyone within the Newcastle squad can be said to be irreplaceable, it is surely Saturday's match winner, a player whose ability to change the course of a game, not to mention the mood of a city, in an instant makes him an all-but-priceless commodity.
He has been courted before, most notably by Liverpool and Monaco, and while there have been no formal approaches during the current transfer window, it would hardly be the biggest deadline-day surprise to see that situation change.
Pardew has claimed it would take an offer that “blows the doors off” to sign Cabaye. For Newcastle's sake, it is to be hoped it is the doors, windows and sun roof too when it comes to Ben Arfa.
“I am very happy here,” confirmed the 26-year-old, after his 87th-minute thunderbolt secured Newcastle's first Premier League victory of the season and quelled some of the mounting unease that had accompanied an all-too-predictably fraught start to the campaign. “I am healthy and fit, and am doing good things.
“Last season was frustrating for me. I had a few injuries and didn't play as much as I wanted towards the end because I couldn't get that fitness. That is why pre-season was so important for me.
“I hope everyone comes to the stadium to enjoy themselves, and I will try to make everyone enjoy it. We are really happy with the win, and can now work for two weeks with a bit of serenity.”
That serenity might dissipate by 11pm if the deadline-day balance sheet is not signed off in Newcastle's favour, but at least Saturday's victory, which was merited thanks to a much-improved second-half performance, has bought a modicum of breathing space.
Dissent was mounting as the Magpies' wait for a home goal stretched beyond the seven-hour mark, with the booing of Yohan Cabaye and airing of songs criticising both Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear adding to the sense of impending doom.
Had Ben Arfa not cut in from the right flank to swell his collection of wonderful individual goals with a magnificent curler into the top left-hand corner, the reaction at full time would surely have been hostile.
As it was, the sense of relief was palpable. It is far too early to talk of a corner being turned, but at least after the horror of the Etihad Stadium and the boredom of a goalless draw with West Ham, Ben Arfa's match winner ensured Newcastle are up and running.
“I actually thought he made some poor decisions on Saturday,” said Pardew. “But he can win us a game at any level, and that's exactly what he did.
“At half-time, I actually said to him, 'You need to seriously think about what you're doing here today because you're slowing us down and making poor decisions with the ball'.
“To be fair to him, he was a little bit more responsible in terms of his positional play in the second half and that worked for him and us. He opened up the game a couple of times, then won it with an absolute pearler.”
Ben Arfa's brilliance ultimately made the difference, but there were other positives to take from an afternoon that provided a timely reminder of some of the qualities that still exist within Newcastle's much-maligned squad.
Fulham are hardly the most potent side in the Premier League, but the quality of the Magpies' defending was still laudable as they claimed their third clean sheet in a week following shut-outs against West Ham and Morecambe.
Fabricio Coloccini was back to his imperious best, and resolving the Argentinian's future is one transfer battle Newcastle did well to win at the start of the summer. Tim Krul was forced into useful second-half saves to deny first Bryan Ruiz and then Adel Taarabt, but with Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa also defending resolutely, the hosts always appeared comfortable at the back.
At the other end, Papiss Cisse produced his most threatening display of the season, and was unfortunate to see a 78th-minute header from a Ben Arfa cross cannon off the crossbar.
The most uplifting aspect of the afternoon, however, was the quality of the changes Pardew was able to make, and the resultant head of steam Newcastle were able to engender in the minutes leading up to Ben Arfa's goal.
For so long, the Magpies' bench has been akin to a kindergarten, but in Cabaye, Yoan Gouffran and debutant Loic Remy, Pardew was finally able to introduce experienced campaigners capable of making an immediate impression.
It would be wrong to deny the remaining need for reinforcements, but when everyone is fit, Newcastle's squad is not quite as threadbare as it has sometimes appeared.
“I do think that everything that followed the Man City game was an overreaction,” said Pardew. “We had so many things going on that day – our whole game plan went out the window when Yohan didn't play and everything else.
“Unfortunately, words mean nothing, it's about results. But the last two performances have shown we're not in too bad a state.
“We looked more threatening, but we didn't previously have Cabaye or Remy on the pitch. We didn't have what I think is the right blend to break teams down, but we had options on Saturday and that made a difference.”
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