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The fitness of French midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa will be vital to the success of Newcastle United this season, after a strange off-season and a 2012-13 campaign to forget.
What happened last season
Last season was a disappointing one for Newcastle, who were unable to repeat their success of 2011-2012.
After the season where everything seemed to go right, Newcastle were felled by injuries, Europe and the structural inequalities of the English top-flight. Losing star striker Demba Ba to Chelsea halfway through the season didn’t help either.
At the very least, Alan Pardew’s side managed to avoid relegation, but it was a close call for the Toon Army.
After being awarded manager of the season in 2012, Pardew has come under withering criticism from fans, and will be forced to start with a bang to avoid the sack.
What happened in the off-season
Newcastle United fans haven’t been given much to cheer about over the summer.
First, there was the ‘Wonga’ row, in which star striker Papiss Cisse refused to wear the loan company sponsor on his shirt. Like Freddie Kanoute at Sevilla in 2006, Cisse believed the loan company was at odds with his religious beliefs.
Just as the impasse was resolved, however, infamous ex-coach Joe Kinnear took over as director of football, much to the dismay of the Geordie faithful.
The appointment of Kinnear, whom Brian Glanville described as being “dug out of retirement”, has been widely met with derision.
If fans didn’t have a lot of faith in Kinnear to begin with, they’ll have even less after he mispronounced the names of much of the first team in a weird and wonderful radio interview, where he called the club’s French midfielder Yoann Cabaye ‘Yoann Kebab’, Papiss Cisse ‘Sissy’, not to mention Hatem Ben Arfa as ‘Ben Afri’.
One can only wonder what hash Newcastle’s new bumbling director of football will make of Bafetimbi Gomis should they manage to sign ‘baby Drogba’ from Lyon.
The Guardian reported earlier this month that Gomis was on his way to St James Park, which might resolve some of the attacking issues Newcastle have faced since the exit of Demba Ba last January.
Ba became an instant hit with the Toon Army, and the club has faltered in his absence.
Why fans should be excited about the 2013/14 season
In short, they shouldn’t.
Relieved of European duties, the players can at least focus their attention on the Premier League, however with little activity in the summer, there are few reasons for fans to expect a top ten finish.
While the Bafetimbi Gomis signing looks less and less likely by the day, Newcastle’s threadbare striking options should at least be bolstered by French whippet Loic Remy, who arrives on a one-year loan deal from Queens Park Rangers.
Remy is a proven goalscorer in his native France, and started well at QPR, scoring six goals in just 14 games.
Much has been made of Newcastle manager Alan Pardew’s ‘French Revolution’ in the north of England. Where Arsenal once held the tricolour aloft in the Premier League, it seems Newcastle has become the new clearing house for the French foreign legion.
In this regard, Loic Remy could be a brilliant recruit, reuniting him with former Marseille teammate Hatem Ben Arfa and current French internationals Cabaye, Moussa Sissoko and Sylvain Marveux.
The main man that can carry 2013/14 hopes
Even if they can’t threaten the top five, there is more than enough to suggest Newcastle can improve on last season’s dismal finish.
While regular starters Danny Simpson and James Perch have both moved on, the combination of Fabricio Coloccini, Cabaye and crowd favourite Jonas Gutierrez should provide plenty of action at St James’ Park.
If he can stay fit, the key man is Hatem Ben Arfa. The diminutive Frenchman has the ability to single-handedly turn a game, but has failed to find any consistent form in England so far.
Described by Alan Pardew as an “exceptional talent”, Geordie fans will be hoping Ben Arfa can fulfill his obvious potential this season.
Newcastle won’t be troubled by relegation battles this season, but there will be no repeat of their top five position in 2012.
Pardew has openly admitted the rest of the competition has gotten stronger, and thus Newcastle fans will have to content themselves with a mid-table finish.