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Saturday, April 7, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Pardew deserves top manager honors


LONDON — When Alan Pardew was appointed manager of Newcastle United 16 months ago, his welcome from supporters was not so much lukewarm as Siberian.

Christopher Davies

They believed chairman Mike Ashley was wrong to fire Chris Hughton in such a brutal manner and Pardew spent his early weeks at the club trying to justify his presence.

Newcastle finished an unimpressive 16th last May and when Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton followed Andy Carroll through the exit door, hopes for 2011-12 were minimal. Mid-table mediocrity beckoned — again.

The credibility of Ashley and Pardew for allowing the three players perceived as Newcastle's best to leave was questioned with vitriol in public.

That was then. Fast forward eight months and the picture is very different.

The League Managers' Association will soon vote for their Manager of the Year and Pardew is a leading candidate for the award after a season where fans and football writers have been forced to eat humble pie.

Even Pardew is surprised, though very pleasantly, by Newcastle's form, which saw it go into Friday night's game against Swansea on the same points total as Chelsea.

Far from losing the heart of the team with the departure of Carroll, Nolan and Barton, their leaving has seen a new spirit at the Sports Direct Arena, while Pardew has come up trumps in the transfer market, particularly with his new Senegalese strike force of Demba Ba (free from West Ham) and Papiss Cisse (£9 million from Wolfsburg).

The midfield creativity of Yohan Cabaya (£4.4 million from Lille), plus the defensive solidarity of Davide Santon (£5.3 from Inter Milan) has seen new Newcastle contenders rather than pretenders.

The award, voted for by fellow managers, is presented to a manager from any division for his achievements in the season. Among the criteria is consideration to what a manager has achieved on how much he has spent — as a result only on five occasions in 17 years has the Premier League-winning manager won the award.

Ba, who has scored 16 goals this season, Cisse — seven goals in seven matches — Cabaye and Santon cost a combined £18.8 million, which is £100 million less that Liverpool has spent since January 2011, and half the fee the Reds paid Newcastle for Carroll.

The return from injury of Hatem Ben Arfa has given Newcastle a playmaker of rare class, while the backbone of the team — goalkeeper Tim Krul, center-back Fabricio Coloccini and Cheick Tioté, a one-man wrecking crew in midfield — stands comparison with any in English football.

Pardew had been fired by West Ham and Southampton, and left Charlton by mutual consent. While he could not be called a failure, as much a victim of boardroom politics and fickle fans, there was little to suggest he was going to take Newcastle to the next level so quickly.

A vibrancy has been restored to Tyneside where there is guarded optimism that Newcastle can clinch a Europa League spot.

Pardew, who has never lacked confidence, is showing more humility, but as much as anything he has shown that with the help of chief scout Graham Carr you do not have to spend tens of millions of pounds to buy outstanding players.

Or in the case of some clubs, to buy average players.

* * *

CHELSEA WAS LESS than convincing in overcoming Benfica 2-1 in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge, but a sixth semifinal in nine years underlines its consistency at the highest level in European football.

It puts Roman Abramovich three games from his holy grail — again. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the Blues will need to play much, much better — producing the performances of their lives — and hope Barcelona has two off nights (they rarely have one) to triumph in the semifinals.

Pablo Aimar, the Benfica midfielder, was outstanding as the 10-man visitors came too close for Chelsea's comfort to producing an upset on Wednesday.

If Aimar can have Chelsea in a spin, imagine what another Argentine, Lionel Messi, could do.

Benfica coach Jorge Jesus said his team made Chelsea look ordinary, so what hope does it have against the most extraordinary side on the planet?

Chelsea won't lack confidence, and a system that belatedly makes the most of Fernando Torres' intelligent movement is a plus. They have the experience, but the old guard's legs will be severely tested by two massive semifinals in four days.

On Sunday, April 15, Chelsea play Spurs at Wembley in the F.A. Cup semifinals, which could see extra-time and penalties.

Three days later Barcelona comes to Stamford Bridge where another Catalan master class is not so much predicted as expected.

Few believe Chelsea can climb this footballing Everest, but Barcelona is not unbeatable. Just almost unbeatable, having lost two of its 53 matches this season.

* * *

ACCORDING TO Diniyar Bilyatetdinov, the former Everton forward who joined Spartak Moscow in January, English referees had it in for Russian players after Russia beat England to the right to host the 2018 World Cup.

"The atmosphere took a turn for the worse," he said. "The referees didn't have much sympathy for us."

That sounds perfectly credible to me, Diniyar. I can just imagine Mike Riley, head of Premier League referees, calling the match officials together and saying: "Listen lads, those damn Ruskies have gone and beaten England to the 2018 World Cup. The rotters.

"We can't just sit back and do nothing. Have no sympathy for any Russian players."

Or maybe Bilyatetdinov was speaking rubbish.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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