THE last five days have been a reminder of why the Premier League is so loved around the world – Manchester United humbled by Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland beating Manchester City, Chelsea shocked by Aston Villa, Fulham overcoming Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur held in Swansea.
Anything, it seems, is possible on any given matchday. Over the course of a season, things are rather more predictable.
A glass ceiling separates six clubs – the Manchester giants, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool – from the rest.
For a while this season, Newcastle United gatecrashed the party. It is at the turn of the year, though, that the Premier League takes shape. An end-of-year slump has seen the Magpies with their faces pressed up against the glass.
For a club run on a shoestring, this week has been a reminder of just what an achievement it is for Newcastle to cling onto the big boys’ coat-tails. Seventh in the table, they are as high as they could realistically expect to be at this stage in their development.
On Friday, Liverpool shrugged off the suspension of £23m Luis Suárez by selecting £35m Andy Carroll. Tonight’s visitors, Manchester United, may have an injury list which makes Old Trafford look more like Holby City, but Sir Alex Ferguson will still be able to choose two from Wayne Rooney, golden boot holder Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández. Opposite number Alan Pardew is likely to field a front two which cost less then £2m.
Fortunately, Yohan Cabaye is no respecter of reputations, and with good reason.
Last season the cultured midfielder played for a provincial Lille side whose 16,000 average gates made them France’s tenth best-supported side. Yet it was they, not glamourpusses like Marseilles, Lyon or Paris Saint-Germain who walked off with the league and cup double. Cabaye sees similarities between that band of brothers and the Newcastle squad he joined this summer.
“I had a choice of quite a few clubs when I left Lille, but as soon as the contract offer came in from Newcastle, my mind was made up,” he recalls. “Nothing has happened to make me regret my decision. I am delighted with the way things have gone here.
“A lot of people might have been surprised, but I never had any doubt it was the right move to make. I am quite happy with the choice I made.
“Newcastle is a pretty similar club to Lille. It is a similar kind of size in relation to the other clubs in the league. They are two clubs trying to build through playing good football. The people at both clubs are the same. When I was at Lille, we achieved something few thought possible. Hopefully, we can do something similar here.
“Money is important in football, but the most important thing is the spirit and character of the team. It is not simply a case of the richest team winning. At Lille, we didn’t have much money, but we had a group of players who played for the team and now each other, and that’s why we won the Championship. It is a similar spirit here.”
There is more to the Magpies than just spirit, however. It is hard to argue with Pardew’s assessment that in Cabaye and Cheick Tioté he has a central midfield pairing to make the Red Devils green with envy. This season Tim Krul has comfortably outperformed Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper, David de Gea.
It is why a side who failed to make last season’s top half is now dreaming of Europe. If the FA and League Cups go to the usual suspects – and one from Manchester City and Liverpool are guaranteed a place in the Carling Cup final – Newcastle’s current position will do it.
“Our main target this season is to finish in the top seven,” Cabaye explains. “If we can qualify for the Europa League, that will be a great achievement. I believe we can do it.
“The last few results might not have been brilliant, but our form in most of the season has shown what we are capable of.”
Newcastle’s record against Manchester United last season was played two, drawn two.
Their 3-2 defeat at home to Blackburn makes tonight’s visitors more dangerous prospect in the eyes of many. But Newcastle too have bad news to bury, after a fifth reverse in eight games at Anfield,
“This is a good opportunity to put things right after the disappointment at Liverpool,” says Cabaye. “That was a disappointing evening, but we just have to focus on the Man United game now. We want to win the game and start the New Year well.
“The main thing for us is just to focus on the next game. We need to play again as a team, as we did at the start of the season.
“Before I came to England, I was always told that Christmas was the most important time of the season. Unfortunately for Manchester United, they’ve got a crop of injuries at this time. The manager had to put out a weird team at the weekend because of that. He didn’t have any choice.”
Just to hear Cabaye’s disappointment at losing to Liverpool is music to Newcastle’s ears. Another surprise result tonight would be a lovely encore.