By Jay Jaffa
Relegation-threatened QPR or Newcastle? Loic Remy would not have given the west London side a cursory glance 12 months ago, so entrenched in the mire were the Rs. Alan Pardew's side, on the other hand, were flying, surging up the table and making a push for an unlikely Champions League place.
Now, just two points outside the relegation zone with only two wins from their last 13 Premier League games, those on Tyneside must be wondering how it all went so wrong.
Think back to last campaign. Pardew's every move paid off. Supported by a sensible transfer policy and a scouting team dedicated to plucking rough diamonds from the French market, Newcastle built intelligently and almost gatecrashed the Champions League places. Fifth place was an unexpected bonus in Mike Ashley's long-term strategy.
|THE TABLE NEVER LIES
|PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE IN JANUARY 2012|
|PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE IN JANUARY 2013|
The lackadaisical attitude left Newcastle a step behind the competition, even if they did start the season with a win over rivals Tottenham. But that was just one of five league wins from 22 games so far and they were eliminated from both domestic cups at the first time of asking. The Europa League, nothing more than an afterthought to Pardew, does at least give the squad something to play for, but their focus will be trained on a league campaign that is flirting with relegation.
Perhaps Pardew felt he could rediscover the form of 2011-12 and carry the team to January, with their ambitions of a top-six place intact. How misguided that looks now. It was obvious to all but the most one-eyed Newcastle supporter that the defence needed improving at the very least.
Mike Williamson and Danny Simpson did not do badly last season but to ask for consistency from two players unlikely to ever be graded as top six defenders was a bridge too far. They are committed and diligent but not on par with Fabricio Coloccini and, they hope, Mathieu Debuchy, while Davide Santon has plenty of growing still to do.
Injuries haven't accommodated the club's frugal nature of course, with Tim Krul and Yohan Cabaye missing sizeable portions of this season, but that is exactly why Ashley should have helped garnish the squad with extra quality.
Instead, he handed Pardew a barely believable eight-year contract in September in what many read as a faux-loyalty ploy to help shed his reputation for incompetence. Though Pardew does not seem the type to rest on his laurels, such a tactic appears to have affected his squad. Demba Ba kept the team ticking over until his release clause was met earlier this month, but his compatriot Papiss Cisse looks a shadow of the player whose every touch seemed to find the back of the net last year.
Worse still, Hatem Ben Arfa, their most gifted player, has expressed a desire to move on, while Coloccini is linked with a return to Argentina on a daily basis. Cabaye looks disinterested and Cheikh Tiote is at the Africa Cup of Nations leaving the Magpies rudderless.
In fairness, the club appear to be making progress in January on a number of deals, spurred on by six months of wincing at results. Debuchy will prove to be a far superior option to Simpson and talk of signing Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa shows that they are identifying the root of their problems and seeking treatment.
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What will grate, though, is the missed opportunity with Remy. The prospect of the now-QPR forward and Ben Arfa supporting Cisse in a three-pronged attack was exciting, not least the buzz his transfer would have generated, but it should not curtail plans to acquire a new wide forward.
This is not a Premier League season overflowing with quality. Defensively most teams are a shambles and the value of a goal has almost lost its meaning. Yet Newcastle languish in amongst the seasonal whipping boys and below Southampton
That fact appears to have registered with Pardew, who recently declared that: "Better teams than the one I manage have gone down before," before moving to praise the work done by Ashley: "We’re such a well-run club, financially. I am as confident as I can be that we are the most aggressive [financially] we have been since I’ve been at the football club."
Toon fans will have to hope that missing out on Remy is the exception to the rule this January, and the line coming from the club suggests they will be far better placed come the end of the month.
Pardew must try to shake the funk engulfing the club and find the formula needed to climb away from trouble. With Reading arriving on Tyneside on Saturday and a trip to Aston Villa 10 days later Newcastle must gather points before trickier tests in the shape of Chelsea and Spurs arrive.
Make no mistake, Ashley may have changed his outlook, but there is still a trigger happy chairman capable of doing to Pardew what Nicola Cortese did to Nigel Adkins on Friday. The 51-year-old is too savvy not to realise the perils of a relegation battle, not least his own future.
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