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Newcastle's Europa League title hopes growing, says Jeff Stelling

Features - Jeff Stelling Posted 21st March 2013 view comments

There's a real feel-good factor around Newcastle United at the moment, despite all the fall-out from that challenge on Massadio Haidara.

I was lucky enough to be at St James' Park on Wednesday as the first members of Newcastle United Foundation's Hall of Fame were inducted and my gut feeling from talking to people was that there's a strong solidarity among the current players and that the club as a whole is on the up.

Moussa Sissoko: scored twice in Newcastle's 3-2 victory over Chelsea

Moussa Sissoko: scored twice in Newcastle's 3-2 victory over Chelsea

That certainly wasn't the prevailing mood at Christmas, when Newcastle were looking over their shoulders at the chasing pack very closely indeed.

It's no secret that the players who came in during the January transfer window have given everybody a massive boost and the team is now 13th in the Premier League.

If they finished a 'normal' season in that position I think Newcastle would be very disappointed but this season you have to factor the Europa League in.

At the start of that competition I think they thought 'let's see how we go and how much progress we can make'. Now there's a feeling that they could win the Europa League.

Jeff Stelling
Quotes of the week

At the start of that competition I think they thought 'let's see how we go and how much progress we can make'. Now there's a feeling that they could win the Europa League. They are certainly not shouting from the rooftops that they will but there's just a small feeling of optimism that it is possible.

Without the commitments in that competition, I'm convinced they'd be higher than 13th in the league because this is a side that possesses many qualities.

Immense

Moussa Sissoko has impressed everybody since he arrived at the club, in particular.

I didn't know much about him beforehand and, given the lack of interest in him from other clubs, I'm not sure many in the Premier League did either.

Everybody - including the Soccer Saturday lads - made a lot of the fact that they were signing so many Frenchmen and were asking if it would be good for morale when it came to Le Crunch but so far, so good.

Sissoko has been immense but I like Yoan Gouffran as well. He has settled in straight away and is a threat down the flanks, so fair play to Newcastle's scouts.

Anger

Alan Pardew has got the team together and playing well so I'm sure Sunday's defeat to Wigan came as a big disappointment, with Haidara's injury only adding to the frustration.

Needless to say there was only one opinion last night on Callum McManaman's challenge. I had a chat with assistant manager John Carver, who has now been charged with misconduct for the FA for his role in an incident at half-time.

John knows better than anyone that he has a short fuse and is a feisty character - he's passionate and wears his heart on his sleeve - and I would imagine that 90 per cent of football fans will understand his anger and frustration at Haidara's injury.

He was almost like the dad protecting his son after his boy has been hurt by a bad tackle during Sunday morning football - it was that kind of instinct.

Dave Whelan's defence of McManaman's tackle - if he has been accurately quoted - did surprise me because there is no question in my mind that the way that McManaman went in was reckless or dangerous, whichever you prefer.

That said I hope Callum isn't demonised because of this; he made a mistake and it was a bad one, but let's not allow this error to blight his whole career. Above all, though, let's hope that Haidara makes a full recovery.

Exhilarating

This week a former Newcastle striker announced he would retire at the end of the season - Michael Owen.

Michael's spell at St James' Park weren't the best days of his career but he did have a decent goal-scoring return, netting 30 times in 79 games.

He won't be remembered at Newcastle in the same light as Shearer, Beardsley and many others who went before but I'm sure fans will reflect on his spell with qualified affection.

Football in general should remember him as more than that, of course.

It's such a shame that his career has gradually dwindled away. None of us knows what lies around the corner and Michael always wanted to get back to his peak but never quite managed it.

But at his best his explosive pace was exhilarating and he was a dead-eye finisher with an ice-cool head on his shoulders.

In short, he was breathtakingly good, in his early years in particular, and I hope that's how people will remember him.

Michael replicated his club form for England, which was sensational.

Jeff's Gem of the Week

Stevenage deserve an honourable mention for their 4-0 win over Sheffield United but I'm going to go for Huddersfield winning their Yorkshire derby at Leeds on Saturday. The victory means Huddersfield are almost safe now and I look at Mark Robins and although he's had one or two setbacks in his managerial career, I'm convinced that he has the potential to be a top-quality manager. He's showing it again now in that he's turning Huddersfield's fortunes around so quickly. I'm also pleased to see James Vaughan doing so well, too. Just as Michael Owen's career has been blighted by injury, so James' has suffered to a huge degree. Yet he still has the goal-poacher's instinct and it's great to see him fit and firing and hopefully it will stay that way for a long time.

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