Alan Pardew is preparing to rotate his Newcastle United squad as he looks to out-do his board’s modest expectations.
This afternoon’s visit of Stoke City is the first of three Magpies games in a week, with Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion to follow.
These days festive fixtures require full use of the squad, and Pardew has been encouraged by the performances produced by those on the fringe during Saturday’s 3-0 win at Crystal Palace that he can do that safely.
Newcastle’s run of 19 points from eight games has been achieved largely with the 11 starters at Selhurst Park, plus the odd 90-minute contribution from Shola Ameobi.
But Hatem Ben Arfa’s goal-scoring performance from the bench at the weekend has reassured Pardew he has scope to change his team.
“We are coming to a real run of games now and one or two different players will be involved which will give people the opportunities they want,” Pardew commented. “We were lucky that Shola and Hatem both came in and did very well.
“When you are in a good run of form you get that feeling on the training ground that the players are working well and that is what is happening. You want to try and keep that going as long as you can.”
With Cheick Tiote suspended after collecting his fifth yellow card of the season at Selhurst Park, at least one change will be forced upon Pardew, but he will be wary of weakening his side. With Vurnon Anita having such a good second season on Tyneside, Pardew may feel confident enough to bring in one of the attacking duo for Tiote, rather than a like-for-like replacement.
As title-chasing Arsenal are at St James’ Park three days later the challenge of Stoke could easily be overlooked. But the Potters have also only lost once in their last eight league games, to move into the top half.
“This is a very important game,” Pardew stressed. “Stoke are on a run at the moment and we need a performance similar to the one we put in against Palace to get past them. We need much more of the same really.”
Newcastle’s form has taken them within two wins of the top of the table at Christmas, making a mockery of the board’s aim of a top-half finish. Having taken the team into Europe 18 months ago, Pardew has his sights set higher. Playing in the Europa League scarred the Magpies, stretching the squad beyond its capabilities, but some supporters saw aiming simply for the top half as indicative of a lack of ambition from owner Mike Ashley.
“It is pretty obvious we were after top ten but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better than that and that is what we are trying to do,” Pardew said. “We are getting a little cushion between us and tenth (currently nine points) and we have to stay in that group. Everyone in the top eight won at the weekend which is very unusual and something has to give.
“If you take the pressure of playing in the Europa League out of the equation, there is no reason why we should not be aiming for top ten every season. But that is a tough competition as Swansea and Tottenham have found.
“This season I saw top ten as a realistic target and I was even looking for more. The important thing for us is to stay on the coat-tails of the leading group, which is pushing us on and making it such a good league this year.”
Meanwhile, summer target Bafetimbi Gomis has announced he will leave Lyon when his contract expires at the end of the season.
“I’ve begun my fifth season at OL (Olympique Lyonnais),” he said. “I think at the end of the season, it’s time for me to go elsewhere, if the grass is greener.”
Lyon may attempt to sell the 28-year-old striker next month rather than lose him for free, and Newcastle are one of the clubs persistently linked with a January move, but Gomis would have to lower the wage demands which put Newcastle off in the summer.
“We are keeping our powder dry,” Pardew said of his January transfer plans. “Really, we don’t want to see anybody move out. We are pretty strong on that point and we have room if we are not. We are poised to make a move if it works for us.”