Alan Pardew has reassured Hatem Ben Arfa that he still expects him to make a “big impact” on Newcastle United’s season.
The mercurial French forward’s future is shrouded by a measure of doubt after the player turned down a chance to re-negotiate his contract in the summer – and there have been no fresh talks since.
Ben Arfa has slipped out of the team and Pardew has not handed him a start since the Sunderland defeat in October.
He remains on a long-term contract until 2016, though, and Pardew has made it very clear that he still has a huge role to play at St James’ Park.
The former Marseille man was used as an impact substitute last Saturday, helping to alleviate some of the pressure that was building on Newcastle in the second half. And Pardew – who believes his squad is actually stronger than the group that finished fifth in 2012 – is ready to utilise him in the same way against West Brom.
“I think he has shown how good his attitude has been when he came on against Norwich on Saturday,” Pardew said. “He changed the emphasis when he came on as a substitute. He made us more dangerous and gave us a bit of pace.
“He changed the fact that Norwich were constantly at us and that helped us get over the line. He is in a great place and he could be significant on Saturday.
“His attitude has come as no surprise to me. I’ve been with Hatem now since I have been here, three years almost, and I would like to think he respects my decisions. I certainly respect his. I think that helps in his mind.
“He is a character who is going to have a big impact on our season.”
Quite what the future holds for Ben Arfa is unclear, with owner Mike Ashley prepared to go in a different direction over the summer depending on the level of interest in some of the club’s big players.
Pardew has claimed the club is under “no pressure” to sell their biggest assets but the affection that the crowd have for Ben Arfa is no protection against the cold, hard logic of whether the player is worthy of another long-term contract. At 26 and with some fitness issues, the club may not be keen to reprise the potential five-year contract that was being considered in the close season.
Pardew admits it is a mixed blessing to have a team in such good form because it means players of the calibre of Ben Arfa and Fabricio Coloccini – who is pushing hard for a return to the team – may be left out.
He said: “He has got to hope an opportunity arises. At the minute, the players are not giving him an opportunity. That is good news for me but not so good news for him.”