Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Game 5: Everton vs Newcastle United

It's taken all of 62 minutes for Hatem Ben Arfa to prove his worth to Newcastle. His wonderful strike against Everton has turned English admirers-from-afar into disciples. The goal was magnificent – controlling the ball, wrong-footing two opponents and firing a left-footed screamer into Tim Howard's top corner. It was a inescapable, masterful piece of football genius and one for which the crowds of Marseille perhaps are pining given their sputtering start in Ligue 1.

That on his full debut for Newcastle he produced such magic is only to be expected, really. There's never been any debate about his footskills, with more questions raised above shoulder level than below. His elegant manner on the ball is only emphasised by his nuggetiness and ability to stand up in the challenge. His goal proved that his left foot especially is a cannon.

The more unexpected comment came to me this morning with ESPN Soccernet's headline: “Hughton hints at permanent deal for Ben Arfa”. I'm sorry, what? This is a headline? Of course they're looking for a permanent deal, he's the most naturally skilled player – and probably the most talented player – the Toon have had since Alan Shearer turned 30. Why wouldn't you try to sign him? For Newcastle, the loan deal for Ben Arfa was never a “try before you buy”, but more Ben Arfa getting a free look into life Tyneside before committing to becoming Andy Carroll's competition for the title of Next Messiah. Unable to meet Marseille's straight-up asking price over the summer, they'll have to pony up the pounds in January (or at season's end) to keep him. That they have first option to buy is a very encouraging sign as his performances as “feature” player in the Toon midfield could well pique interest in the Frenchman.

That his full debut was accompanied by that of Cheick Tiote can hardly have hurt HBA. The Ivorian was superb as he completed all of his 43 passes and provided a strength and mobility in the midfield which the game-but-overmatched Alan Smith has heretofore unable to provide. With Smith undoubtedly the weakest link in the centre of the park and Danny Guthrie yet to return, the fervent Toon Army hope is the troika of Tiote, Barton and Guthrie are able to keep Smith from the side, as disappointing as that would be for such a likeable sort.

In an otherwise uneventful match, the Toon defence looked solid – as usual – and the pace on the flanks stood up well after having looked slightly misguided over the past two matches; Routledge had a good chance and it appeared the Toffee fullbacks were at times unable to cope with his and HBA's speed. Mike Williamson and Fab Coloccini again showed their mettle against forwards completely devoid of jinks and tricks – as this season has shown, Beckford's pace could well have troubled the pairing but they were able to cope with minimum of fuss. That they were also able to nullify the aerial prowess of Marouane Fellaini must go down as another feather in their caps; however a slightly smaller feather as the other Evertonian bombardier Tim Cahill was injured and unable to play.

The biggest question raised by Saturday's match though concerns the Goalkeeper. With Steve Harper going down at the thirty-fifth minute with a shoulder injury it left young Tim Krul to hold the fort. Highly rated by the Newcastle coaching staff, this may be the opportunity he requires to step up and show he has what it takes to replace Harper long-term. Rumours abound the Magpies are in the market for a new goalie – Shay Given, anyone? – but there are a few question marks concerning Shay's potential Tyneside return. Surely Given must be conscious of the old adage “Never go back”? And secondly, the Newcastle defence has been served well with the vocal, organised Harper where commanding a defence ranks below shot-stopping on Given's list of attributes. The position for the short term is Krul's to lose; though he's thought well of, there are bountiful question marks about his ability not necessarily to stop shots, but to command and organise a defence – in that way he, like Given, is a very different type of keeper to Harper. That Coloccini and Sol Campbell have some of these administrative skills is a plus and takes some of the pressure off the 22 year-old, but Harper has been crucial to the defensive watertightness that NUFC has attempted this year, so the changeover itself could be a destabilising influence.

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