THURSDAY was the night Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa finally became a proper Newcastle United player.
Tall, athletic and a captain of one of this year’s Champions League entrants at the age of just 23, he seemed arguably the most exciting of all the Magpies’ five French recruits this January. When he arrived, there was a distinct possibility the centre-back would be Fabricio Coloccini’s replacement.
That is still likely to be his destiny, but not just yet after the Argentinian was persuaded his need to return home was not so pressing it could not wait until the summer at least. Yanga-Mbiwa could have been forgiven for being one of the few people on Tyneside not delighted to hear that Coloccini was staying.
So while the likes of Mathieu Debuchy, Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko were given the chance to showcase their talent, Yanga-Mbiwa was forced into the role of bit part player. Two substitute appearances both came late, and in midfield.
But the Europa League is set to be Yanga-Mbiwa’s tournament. Little wonder he is hoping the Magpies can still win a competition they could well drop out of on Thursday. Thanks to him they have a chance, albeit an outsiders’ one.
“It’s been a while since I played a full 90 minutes but I came to Newcastle to play football and fight for the team,” says a player whose farewell Montpellier appearance came at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome a month tomorrow. “I’m here to continue to progress personally and to keep learning.
“Playing 90 minutes on Thursday was important for me in that respect, but it also helps to keep me on my toes in case I’m called on in the Premier League. I know if that happens I will need to be solid defensively, and playing against Kharkiv will help me to do that.” With Sunday’s Premier League trip to Southampton weighing heavily on his mind, it is hard to second-guess manager Alan Pardew’s selection for the must-not-lose game in Ukraine, but thanks to Uefa’s rules Yanga-Mbiwa’s name can safely be inked onto the teamsheet. Europa League teams are only permitted to make one mid-season addition to their squad who has already featured in that Champions League campaign, and Yanga-Mbiwa had the good fortune to be one of two to join Newcastle in January.
Having waited so long for a player who impressed at Euro 2012, the Magpies rate former Lille right-back Debuchy very highly.
But Pardew’s pragmatism told him the more versatile Yanga-Mbiwa would be more valuable, and that Steven Taylor’s return to fitness would mean he needed an outlet for match practice away from the hurly-burly of a Premier League dogfight.
So it was Yanga-Mbiwa who was given the job at right-back last Thursday, and he will take it again this.
The newcomer looked solid in defence, but that is only part of the modern full-back’s job. He was also lively going forward, supplying the cross from which Papiss Cissé scored the second of his perhaps wrongly disallowed goals.
If Valentine’s Night was a relief for Yanga-Mbiwa on a personal level, it was frustrating from a team perspective. Cissé, who also had a diving header saved, out to have given his side a lead to take to sub-zero Eastern Europe, rather than the 0-0 draw that leads many to believe they will be deprived of a likely trip to Moscow in the last 16.
Unsurprisingly, though, Yanga-Mbiwa was focused on the positives when he spoke through an interpreter after Thursday’s game. Pardew had warned before the match of the danger Metalist Kharkiv’s many South American attackers posed on the counter-attack, and their performance on the night confirmed it was not an idle threat. Newcastle stood firm. If they can just claim a score draw this week, that will prove decisive.
“We played well in the first leg,” Yanga-Mbiwa stresses. “We made a lot of chances. Unfortunately we couldn’t take them and get the goals we wanted but we came away from the game with a lot of positives.
“I’m sure in the second leg we’ll go out there, score some goals and hopefully come away with a victory.
“The most important thing when you play at home in Europe is not to concede, the manager told us that beforehand. We’re really pleased we were able to keep a clean sheet.
“We’ll be going to Kharkiv looking to score so the odds are in our favour.”
And providing the linesmen in North East Ukraine are not as over-eager to raise their flag as those at St James’ Park, Yanga-Mbiwa is optimistic an away goal – which will see Newcastle through if the scores are level after 90 minutes – will be forthcoming.
“After what we saw at St James’ Park, I’m confident we can score in Kharkiv,” he says boldly. “With the new players that have come into the squad we’re continuing to improve. We’re really getting stuck in.
“Little by little the improvements are starting to come. We’ve got to make sure we get forward more, and that we continue to play the way we are. If we can do that, I can see us scoring a lot more goals in the future.”