Hatem Ben Arfa Could Have Saved Newcastle From Relegation, But His Career Remains Full Of 'What Ifs'


Newcastle United fans down the bottom end of the Premier League table must look across the channel at Hatem Ben Arfa, scoring a hat-trick for OGC Nice against Rennes and wonder - what would have happened if they had kept...or even used the mercurial French talent.

Maybe they wouldn't have then wasted money on Remy Cabella and Florian Thauvin and perhaps they wouldn't be staring relegation directly in the face?

Meanwhile, down in the south of France, Nice are on the brink of achieving something truly spectacular this season. After 33 games, Les Aiglons sit fourth, just two points behind Olympique Lyonnais, who they just happen to face on Friday night. It's a beautifully poised game, with wonderful sub-text and intrigue.

Ben Arfa spent four seasons in Lyon's senior squad, playing 74 games and scoring seven goals. The young playmaker didn't get on with his OL teammates, most publically Real Madrid star Karim Benzema.

France's Olympique Lyonnais's Karim Benz... : News Photo

In 2008, when Benzema failed to shake hands with Ben Arfa as the former NUFC man made his entrance in a match against Lille, the cat was out of the bag. This was the nail in the coffin for Ben Arfa's career at Lyon, with Benzema indispensable it was a no-brainer when deciding who should stay and who should go.

Just as Ben Arfa left, his current coach, Claude Puel, joined the Rhone club. His time at the Stade Gerland wasn't much better. Sacked in 2011, it would be four years later that their paths would finally cross and now on Friday they have the chance at the ultimate payback – win and they will leapfrog OL and sit in the Champions League places.

Originally signed last January, rules regarding the amount of teams you can register for stopped the deal dead, but the older, perhaps more mature Ben Arfa bided his time and finally, officially, signed for Nice before the start of this season.

'What if' has always been a phrase used regarding Ben Arfa's career. A similarly unceremonious exit from Marseille took him to the North-East - although his time on Tyneside started bright, he failed to win a place in the starting line-up after recovering from injury. The less said about his time at Hull City the better, but now, at 29 years old, this is Ben Arfa's best season to date.

Newcastle United v Liverpool - Premier League : News Photo

Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored more league goals this term, his hat-trick on Sunday brought his total to 16 - level with Alexandre Lacazette - and he has also contributed four assists. That in itself is the biggest problem.

In an age of twitter, vine and more social media channels than you can shake a stick at, Ben Arfa is perfect for the modern world. He will score eye-catching, breath-taking, eye-dropping goals. There will be moments when he does something with the ball that you can't believe. However, this is still the issue, they are only moments.

You want substance, you want him to take over a game, you want him to be the catalyst, the difference-maker.

His first goal on Sunday was a penalty, dispatched after Jean-Michel Seri was fouled in the area. The second came after a neat move involving Valere Germain, Alassane Plea and Vincent Koziello - the latter slipping the ball to Ben Arfa to add the finish. For the third, you have to seriously question the Rennes defence. Collecting the ball inside his own half, he was then allowed to run 40 yards up the pitch without even the hint of a tackle. No one stepped up and when Ben Arfa reached the edge of the box, his shot found the far corner.

Three goals, but none of them due to Ben Arfa's excellence. You always need someone to finish off lovely team play, but you would like him to be involved earlier and more consistently in the sequence that proceeds it.

It is very easy to check statistics and look at the scoresheet and assume that Ben Arfa is the shining light of this team, but for Nice, their success has come as a team effort. They have been playing some of the best, free-flowing football in France and the midfield trio of Seri, Koziello and Nampalys Mendy is one of the best in the country.

FBL-FRA-LIGUE1-NICE-RENNES : News Photo

There have been some calls for Didier Deschamps to bring Ben Arfa into his squad for the Euros this summer, but they are nowhere near as loud as the noise made when it was Dimitri Payet on the outside looking in.

He may be posting his best ever numbers, but that still doesn't mean you can call him Mr Consistent, or rely on him to perform on the biggest stage. After nine games, HBA had seven goals and two assists, but then 13 games passed without him contributing a single goal or an assist.

Before Sunday's game he had six in nine and another two assists, looking like he has rediscovered his early season form, but that is not going to be enough to change Deschamps mind.

You have to praise Ben Arfa for what he has achieved this season, but it is perhaps what he has failed to do in his career up until this point that has led to the euphoria surrounding his achievements since finally finding his feet at the Allianz Riviera.

Failure to beat Lyon on Friday will suggest that he is still not the man for the big occasion. However, silence Parc OL this week and then, maybe then, Deschamps and the rest of France will sit up and take notice.

 

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