x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Expectancy will meet reality at Newcastle United

Alan Pardew's men overachieved considerably last year, with much of their success dependent on unknown quantities.That surprise element has all but gone. Opponents will be wiser to the Magpies this season, writes John McAuley

The acquisition of Demba Ba, left, last season by Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew's surprise a few teams. The Magpies won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.
The acquisition of Demba Ba, left, last season by Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew's surprise a few teams. The Magpies won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.
Alan Pardew, the motivator supreme, may have to change tact this season.
While words such as "believe", "ambition" and "destiny" can still punctuate his team talks in the home dressing room at the Sports Direct Arena, they should perhaps be replaced with "caution", "realism" and "rationality" when addressing the ever-expectant Newcastle United support.
A season in which his side challenged, much to the surprise of anyone with an interest in the English top flight, until the last weekend for a place in the Champions League brought with it a much-deserved manager of the year award.
Much of what Pardew touched turned to gold.
Demba Ba's persistent knee injury was carefully negotiated for the Senegalese striker, a free transfer from West Ham United, to plunder 15 goals before February, while the perceived risk in signing compatriot Papiss Cisse from Freiburg in January proved unfounded. The forward struck 13 times in 14 games, including various candidates for goal of the season.
A previously porous defence was held firm by Tim Krul, the Premier League's outstanding goalkeeper of 2011/12, and Fabricio Coloccini's metamorphosis from liability to captain fantastic.
In midfield, Cheik Tiote, the tenacious Ivorian, provided the steel while Yohan Cabaye, a conjuring playmaker welcomed from Lille, was responsible for the style, creating eight goals and chipping in with six of his own.
Even Hatem Ben Arfa, often the scourge of previous managers, was cajoled into offering fleeting reminders of why he carried such a lofty reputation in France.
In all, this is the most exciting Newcastle side since the halcyon days of Kevin Keegan. Fans' websites no longer yearn for the swashbuckling swagger of "King Kev", but effuse the tactical acumen of Pardew. Yet, caution should accompany confidence.
Newcastle embark on a season with four competitions to contest, most notably the exacting Europa League, which, should they navigate their tie against Greek side Atromitos, demands a gruelling group stage.
It will be interesting to see how Pardew approaches his European quest, as the Newcastle faithful will not appreciate the dismissive strategy employed last season by Harry Redknapp, then the Tottenham Hotspur manager.
The squad needs significant reinforcement, too, if the dual challenge of domestic and European obligations is to flourish - rotation will be key.
While, until now at least, the club has retained Ba, Cisse, Tiote and Cabaye, emphasis has been placed on youthful recruits.
Gael Bigirimana and Romain Amalfitano bolster midfield and Curtis Good offers cover in defence, but all three have been bought with a view to the future. Sammy Ameobi and Haris Vuckic, the perennially injured 19 year old from Slovenia, could feature more prominently this season to add to the attack, but Pardew must swell his playing staff before the end of this month.
That the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations could deprive Newcastle of Ba, Cisse and Tiote for four crucial weeks only magnifies the issue.
Pursuits of the French right-back Mathieu Debuchy, Brazil's Douglas and Vurnon Anita, the versatile Dutchman who would deputise for Tiote, have yet to materialise when deals need to be completed to give Newcastle a realistic chance of emulating last season.
An audacious loan move has even been mooted for their former star Andy Carroll, such is Newcastle's concern about the absence to international duty early next year of Ba and Cisse.
Then there is the dreaded "second-season syndrome".
Pardew's men over achieved considerably last year, with much of their success dependent on unknown quantities in Cisse and, to a certain degree, Ben Arfa.
However, the surprise element, even in a mutable tactical system that stunned Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in May has all but gone; opponents will be wiser to the Magpies.
For all the uncertainty, though, it is worth remembering Newcastle were the best team outside the top four last season and, of their immediate rivals, only Liverpool seem capable of knocking them from that perch.
With fans dreaming of another attempt at Champions League qualification, managing expectations could provide Pardew's greatest obstacle yet.
 
The Challengers
The distraction of the Europa League means Newcastle United may well be battling for qualification for the same competition next May.
The top challengers:
* Liverpool Brendon Rogers is facing his first season in charge and should bring a more aesthetically pleasing style to Anfield, yet emphasis has rightfully been placed on evolution, not revolution. Luis Suarez will provide the goals as Liverpool look strongest for a top-six finish.
* Everton The loss of Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell will be keenly felt, but the acquisition of Steven Naismith and Steven Pienaar should provide the ammunition for strike star Nikica Jelavic. But they must start season well to have any chance of stealing a Europa League spot.
jmcauley@thenational.ae
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