As if Newcastle's season wasn’t strange enough we head out to the Ukraine with the knowledge that Cheick Tiote has been arrested and faces charges of fraud. Police swooped presumably when they saw the description “footballer” on his wage slip. It’s these sort of things that keep happening on Tyneside that make European football a welcome distraction despite our terrible league position.
For anyone else the prospect of tackling the likes of Metalist Kharkiv when also embroiled in a relegation battle would be an unwelcome distraction. For Newcastle and in particular our French foreign legion it is an opportunity to labour under the delusion that we are still one of Europe’s elite clubs, even though we’re below Southampton. The prize is clear, since as we have no real chance of winning the tournament outright. One tie with a big name club like Inter Milan where all the players hankering for Summer moves play the game of their lives in the hope of securing that big money move. The management can then turn around and say “told you it was the right decision to come here” all smug and self-satisfied even though we’re likely to finish fifteenth at best, ten places below the previous season.
Still, that small victory kind of feels fundamentally important with the near certainty of losing Coloccini and question marks over the future of Ben Arfa and Cabaye. The new guard have to feel they’ve made a good decision in joining if the club is to go forward and it’s hard to see where else they would get that warm glow from given the current run of form and performances domestically.
Pardew wasted no time in paying lip-service to the tie describing the Ukrainian team as “one of the powers of the new Europe” when in reality out of the teams left in the competition – Ajax, Benfica, Napoli, Atletico, Lyon among others – he was probably relieved that the big game hadn’t come around too soon.
Of course, all the hoping for another big day in Europe is somewhat irrelevant if we don’t actually go out there and win and over two legs I don’t see it as a certainty at all. Two of the players essential to improving both ends of the pitch, Debuchy and Gouffran are both cup-tied, not that the latter would have featured anyway thanks to his bruising welcome to English football courtesy of Tottenham and some awful officiating. Ben Arfa won’t be tearing down the wing and right now Cisse couldn’t hit a cows rump with an oversized novelty banjo.
Thank the lord for Sissoko then. It’s no wonder Wenger’s sour grape count was at an all time high following our signing of him for next to nothing. Three matches, two of them featuring match winning performances and all of them showing him to be the best player in black and white, he is a clone of Patrick Vieira in his first full season for Arsenal. You feel his presence, determination and ability are tailor made for European nights, evidenced by him putting his new team on his back and carrying them to a victory against Champions League winners Chelsea just less than a fortnight ago.
Securing a victory will come down to Sissoko and Cabaye in centre-midfield. Neither side has a lot to shout about going forward, the young and relatively inexperienced Jonathan Cristaldo representing the best attacking option for Metalist. However, their midfield is certainly more than capable of taking a game by the scruff of its neck. Club captain José Ernesto Sosa, who was at Napoli two years ago, is the jewel in their crown and the veteran Edmar will put himself about, always seeming to perform well in European ties since he joined the club. Everton fans can attest to that.
The combined engine of Sissoko and the all round quality of Cabaye should just give Newcastle the edge in this crucial battle. There’s no doubt our midfield overall has a much more industrious output than our opponents, especially once you add a Tiote, who even if mostly hopeless this season likes to get stuck in, and a tireless Gutiérrez. Those options should keep utility clown James Perch out of harms way and give a poor defence enough protection.
The rest of the team should just about be able to keep pace with them at home and a roaring crowd involved in a collective catharsis of everything that has been rotten for the past three months. There’s no reason to believe that we can’t bang in a few goals, even if we are absolutely guaranteed to concede one. No, the game isn’t won or lost this evening. The away leg in one week is what will decide it.
Now, I’m all for giving football fans the benefit of the doubt but the Ukraine have hardly covered themselves in glory of late when it comes to the matter of racism in football. This is a country where the head coach, Oleh Blokhin, said that Ukrainian players should “learn (football) from Shevchenko or Blokhin and not from some zumba-bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian League.” If that’s a barometer of what someone who is very much in the public eye feels comfortable saying then I dread what environment our players will be walking to into the return leg.
Maybe nothing hostile at all and maybe Kharkiv represent the cosmopolitan and sophisticated face of Ukrainian football. That’s what Pardew seems to believe anyway. Regardless, it is absolutely vital that we manage to take a significant lead out there because better teams – as in two thirds of the Premier League – would struggle to come away with a win.
That is a problem for another time and not thinking too far ahead seems to be Newcastle’s credo. Even as we lurched from one disaster to the next, Pardew seemed unruffled and the fans were acutely aware of just how hypocritical it would be to demand him being given the chop when they celebrated the signing of an unprecedented eight year contract as if it was the third coming of Keegan. The pundits managed to avoid talking about us as relegation candidates even though they were happy to turn the knife on the teams either side of us in the table.
But they don’t have European football do they? And, of course, we do. That’s what we’re supposed to believe separates us from them and that somehow, even by association alone, our pedigree will eventually tell over the course of the long season and we’ll break free of the teams around us. That’s the theory and, provided we actually manage to boss the midfield like we should, something might actually go according to Pardew’s plans for a change.
So yes, all things considered I think we can afford a rare glimpse of optimism on Tyneside, for tonight at least. A solid win here will temporarily put to bed problems both on and off the field. In the grand scheme of things it will be meaningless and the vital game against Southampton looms once we know our fate in Europe and come back from the Ukraine. It should all be alright but when you’re Newcastle matters such as winning and losing are rarely black and white.