HATEM Ben Arfa is finally back in training and in contention for Newcastle United as they face the most critical week of their topsy-turvy campaign.
Ben Arfa has been out for nearly three months but was part of a full squad that worked out ahead of United’s arduous trip to the east of Ukraine, and is bidding to play a part in either Thursday’s second leg in Kharkiv or Sunday’s equally crucial clash with Southampton.
That is a sizeable boost for Alan Pardew, who is more used to picking players on the basis on what is available this season. Instead he has a full compliment for both games, with only assistant boss John Carver on the sidelines with a bout of flu.
Ben Arfa’s return is a positive bulletin for Pardew, who insists his team travels to Eastern Europe in fine spirits despite failing to press home their advantage on home turf.
Metalist proved themselves dangerous opponents at St James’ Park but United – lifted by the arrival of a crop of French stars in January – still believe they can progress to face the winners of Hannover’s tie against Anzhi Makhachkala.
Amid much debate about the team he will put out, Pardew might yet spring a sizeable surprise and include Ben Arfa – who has not played since scoring in a 2-1 reverse against Fulham on December 10. Sunday’s
game against Southampton is a more realistic target for the forward (below) to return in some form or other.
Pardew was one of the star guests at the Sage last night for a Celebration of Sir Bobby Robson’s life, and said he hoped the poignant celebrations of his 80th birthday would inspire a performance the former Newcastle manager would be proud of.
“It’s an inspiration, of course,” he said.
“We’ve got a tough one going out to Ukraine but we’re in good spirits. The whole squad has trained today – including Ben Arfa – and we’re very, very pleased.
“We go there tomorrow, hopefully with the enthusiasm to win.”
Thoughts naturally turned to Sir Bobby on the anniversary of what would have been his 80th birthday, and Pardew admitted that he still had a huge influence on the club.
Newcastle have been strong supporters of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and Pardew was flanked by Steve Harper and Shola Amoebi at last night’s star-studded gala event.
Both played under Sir Bobby and the United boss admitted that it was an honour to be such a key part of the celebrations.
“It’s different for me slightly because I’m from London, but he’s still held in the highest regard anywhere you go in the country,” he said.
“Of course though, he’s a much-loved son of this city. He had the honour of being the manager of this club as I do.
“It’s his enthusiasm that is one of the things that he’ll be remembered for.
“I only met him three or four times but I think he told me his life story twice!
“That was Sir Bobby, he was brilliant and it’s really nice to honour him on his birthday.”
JAMES McFadden last night completed his return to first club Motherwell, signing a contract until the end of the season.
The Scotland forward, who scored 32 goals for the club as a teenager before a £1.25m move to Everton, had been training with the Clydesdale Bank Premier League club after leaving Sunderland last month.