Belfast Telegraph

Newcastle primed for unlikely run at Champions League

By Martin Hardy

Cheick Tioté tackled the question with the same fortitude that has made him one of the most eye-catching midfielders in the Premier League. "Why shouldn't we be thinking about the Champions League as well?" he repeated when asked. "Who knows, it could happen."

It would have been some comment to utter back in August, when there was genuine uncertainty about how Newcastle would fare after a summer of sales and signings. Eight months on, and with seven games of the season remaining, there is an outside chance that Alan Pardew could lead his side to Europe's top table, a competition they have not played in since 2003.

Much has changed on Tyneside in the nine years since Milivoje Cirkovic slipped a penalty past Shay Given at the Gallowgate End in the third qualifying round of that very competition; owners, managers and a phenomenal amount of playing personnel.

Newcastle, then, were not expected to finish in the top four of the Premier League, as they had done for the two preceding seasons, but Sir Bobby Robson, who had inherited a side fighting relegation, turned to his blue-chip players to forge a team spirit that would fight for each other on the field of play (and sometimes with each other off it).

Pardew has done much in his 15 months in charge at St James' Park but forging a work ethic and finding an ability to tap into the men on the fringes has been key to their impressive season. Behind the headline-grabbing displays of Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé and Hatem Ben Arfa (28 Premier League goals between them) has been an emergence of those players whose futures looked uncertain. Ryan Taylor, James Perch and Mike Williamson were not even regulars when Pardew took over, and yet they have proven to be vital cogs this season. Taylor has signed a new deal, Williamson's importance was highlighted in a period where Newcastle did not have back-ups at the heart of their defence and Perch's recent form has been revelatory.

Ben Arfa has similarly bought into the work ethic and there was a nice touch from Pardew when he substituted the player in injury-time on Sunday, offering a huge high-five before playfully grabbing his face to ensure the smile matched his performance.

It is that spirit which will ensure this fight for a top-four finish will go on for as long as it is mathematically possible. If Tottenham have shown anything this season, it is that they do not like to be chased; witness the dramatic manner in which Arsenal hauled back and then overturned a 12-point deficit, and much though Harry Redknapp would not like it to be an issue, his continued link to the England job is a definite distraction.

"We expect to win every game we play at the moment," added Tioté. "We are in a very confident mood throughout the team. We are not just about one player at the moment, we are about the whole of the squad doing well.

"We can't be worried about what the teams around us, like Tottenham and Chelsea, will do, we just have to concentrate on ourselves. If we win every game between now and the end of the season, it won't matter what the other teams do.

"Getting into Europe is the biggest thing for us now and it is very important for us as players and for Newcastle as a club. There has been a long time where we have not seen Newcastle in European competitions and we want that to change. It will be a big thing for us to play in Europe next season. The first target is obviously the Europa League, but..."

In such uncertainty lies an unlikely shot at the Champions League, and the huge riches that come with it. Newcastle have rediscovered their momentum at a key stage of the season, winning their last three games. The five-point gap may well prove insurmountable, but what Pardew and Tyneside are guaranteed, is that the current group of players will not give up without a fight.

Fight for top four

Arsenal: 8 April Man City (h), 11 April Wolves (a), 16 April Wigan (h), 21 April Chelsea (h), 28 April Stoke (h), 5 May Norwich (h), 13 May WBA (a).

Tottenham: 7 April Sunderland (a), 9 April Norwich (h), 21 April QPR (a), 29 April Blackburn (h), 2 May Bolton (a), 6 May Aston Villa (a), 13 May Fulham (h).

Chelsea: 7 April Wigan (h), 9 April Fulham (a), 21 April Arsenal (a), 29 April QPR (h), 2 May Newcastle (h), 6 May Liverpool (a), 13 May B'burn (h).

Newcastle: 6 April Swansea (a), 9 April Bolton (h), 21 April Stoke (h), 28 April Wigan (a), 2 May Chelsea (a), 6 May Man City (h), 13 May Everton (a).

Belfast Telegraph


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