GAËL Bigirimana hopes Newcastle United err on the side of caution in Kharkiv tomorrow, so he can continue his European education.
The Magpies face Metalist in the second leg of their Europa League last 32 tie knowing a score draw will take them through to face Hannover or, more likely, Anzhi Makhachkala.
As last week’s 0-0 draw on Tyneside demonstrated, achieving that will not be easy but manager Alan Pardew must decide how many leading players he can risk before Sunday’s Premier League visit of Southampton. Pardew seems likely to stick with the defensive base that kept out Kharkiv last week, but midfield changes could open the door to Bigirimana (pictured right).
“Europe is an opportunity for us as young players and it is up to me to work as hard as I can to be involved,” said the 19-year-old, who joined from Coventry City in the summer.
“I have signed a big, long contract (five years) but I’m still young so I am just trying to learn and improve every day.
“Now it is up to the manager but I am here if he needs me.
“The Premier League is very important but we want to win the Europa League and, with the new players, our squad has a lot of options so it is what we are all aiming for.”
Pardew shares that desire, but will be mindful of the effect a long trip and 90 (or 120) minutes’ football could have ahead of Sunday’s 1.30pm kick-off.
“Southampton, of course, is in the back of my mind for more than one reason,” Pardew admitted last week. “We under-performed in the away game, it is a team I managed and it is very important to get us to 30 points which is a big target at this stage of the season.”
Tomorrow’s game will only go to extra-time if it is scoreless after 90 minutes. A penalty shoot-out will decide the outcome if the next half-hour is also scoreless.
Anzhi won the home leg of their tie with Hannover 3-1.
Seven of Bigirimana’s 21 appearances in his debut season have come in Europe, and January’s recruitment drive makes it his most likely source of starts in its second half. If he gets on the field at any
stage, Bigirimana will be looking to gauge the progress since his last outing, against Reading in January.
“Sometimes as a young player you need to come in when the team is doing well to see if you have improved or where you are,” he commented.
“Lately I’ve been on the bench or in the squad – it’s all experience for me.
“The gaffer is just saying to me, ‘Keep working, keep learning’ and I will do that. I’m just proud to be part of Newcastle United.”
Belgian Serge Gumienny will referee in the Metalist Stadium.
He has taken charge of Newcastle before, in a 2005 Intertoto Cup defeat at Deportivo la Coruna.
Gumienny occasionally officiates in the Dutch Eredivisie, as well as in his homeland.
Two players who will be spared the trip to Ukraine will be Yoan Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy. The former is cup-tied, the latter not registered.
Like Gouffran, Hatem Ben Arfa returned to training this week but, having not played since December’s trip to Fulham, may not be risked tomorrow.
Ben Arfa remains Newcastle’s most effective forward, but in a magazine interview to be published today, he expresses regret at his unfulfilled talent, comparing himself with four-time World Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi.
“I regret not being mature earlier, because I think today I would be playing at a higher level,” he told Surface magazine .
“Perhaps I would be like (Messi) today. But I’ve still got time, I can catch him up.”
Meanwhile, January transfer target Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has confirmed he will leave Saint-Étienne at the end of the season. “I want to see something else, find something else. A new challenge,” said the Gabon forward.
Newcastle have shown in the past they are unafraid to return for old transfer targets, although Chelsea have also been linked with Aubameyang.
“I was not aware of that. You’re teaching me something new,” he said when told of the Blues’ reported interest.