But can they produce the goods on a cold evening in Stoke?
It’s a question we often hear when discussing whether foreign players can adapt to the English game but in a team context Newcastle passed their acid test with flying colours on Monday evening.
In the league there is hardly a scarier prospect for visiting sides than a trip to Stoke, yet ironically on Halloween evening, Demba Ba gave Stoke a taste of what they were missing out on; haunting them in the most emphatic style.
Back in January, Stoke were on the verge of signing Ba for £9 million, only for the club to pull out of a deal for the Senegalese international due to a failed medical. On Monday night he returned to the Potteries as a Newcastle player with a point to prove; one underlined by a match winning hat-trick that left the booing home fans stunned.
In the first half the Magpies ‘out-stoked’ the Potters and the opening strike supported that notion as Ba headed home after a long kick from Tim Krul, was flicked on by Leon Best, and then crossed into the area by Gabriel Obertan.
A predatory second for the striker came five minutes before the interval and even though Jonathan Walters pulled one back from the spot, Ba netted an emphatic penalty of his own nine minutes from time to put the game to bed.
This 3-1 win though was impressive on so many levels. Not only did Newcastle treble the amount of goals scored at the Britannia by Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea in league encounters this season, but they inflicted just a second home defeat in the calendar year for the hosts which was their first in the Potteries since 1985.
Ba has now scored eight goals in his past five matches in the Premiership, a tally which sees him join Robin Van Persie as one of the league’s most prolific and in-form strikers. In fact, his 14 for 2011 can only be surpassed by the Dutchman and Wayne Rooney.
It also sees his club retain their unbeaten start to the season as they sit third after 10 games, three points clear of Chelsea and Tottenham, and just one behind Manchester United. This is also their best run in the top flight since the days when Jackie Milburn and George Robledo were terrorising defences.
A surprise package, most certainly, an early season phenomenon, possibly. There seems to be one in most of the European leagues thus far (Montpellier, Monchengladbach and Levante’) but even if it doesn’t last, Newcastle certainly has regained their pride after a tumultuous couple of years.
Off the pitch, owner Mike Ashley was under increased scrutiny from the fans for his running of the club and it seemed to peak a year or so ago when Chris Hughton was axed after bringing Newcastle back to where many believed they belonged. In came Alan Pardew on a five and a half year deal, an unpopular choice at the time, though he somewhat eased the pressure on himself with a mid-table finish come seasons end.
Questions were again raised when three of the team’s most influencial players in Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique departed the club for pastures new. Add to that, the sale of Andy Carroll to Liverpool back in January and suddenly holes appeared to be emerging once again. A replacement with the £35 million gained from Carroll wasn’t forthcoming, but a free transfer in Ba didn’t take long to make his mark. Great business, you could say, from the often criticized Ashley.
Now, like their owner, Newcastle are a shrewd outfit on the pitch with a settled back five (including Krul) whose defensive record this season isn’t bettered by anyone else.
Steven Taylor looks back to his best following a wretched run with injury and alongside the much-maligned Fabricio Coloccini; a formidable central foundation has emerged. Right sided Ryan Taylor has proved far more effective on the left while Danny Simpson finally looks to be showing some of that earlier hyped promise.
In midfield, the guile and craft of former Lille playmaker Yohan Cabaye has been marvelously complemented by the tough-tackling industrious Chiek Tiote to create one of the most under-rated central pairs in the league. The latter wasn’t available for injured for last night’s fixture but was ably replaced by Danny Guthrie. A front four of Jonas Gutierrez, Obertan, Best and in particular Ba is also proving to be a fruitful combination.
Cabaye though, has been most outstanding and could well end up being the signing of the season (or at least rivaling Ba, if his scoring exploits continue.) A consistent performer in Ligue 1 for many years, he is now an integral part of this Newcastle spine with his ability to dictate the tempo, play the killer pass and create at will. His strike at Wigan last weekend is perhaps a sign of things to come.
A somewhat European revolution from Pardew has also seen fellow class-acts in Sylvain Marveaux and Davide Santon sign for the club, with the best still to come from the duo. Add to that the sleeping talent of Hatem Ben Arfa in reserve, seen only in glimpses, and there’s greater room for improvement yet.
For now though, everybody associated with Newcastle will be delighted at the rapid progress of a club that was playing Championship football only two seasons ago. Testing times are still to come with the two Manchester teams and Chelsea waiting in their next four fixtures. But as long as Ba keeping scoring, Cabaye keeps pulling the string and Mike Ashley isn’t in the headlines, this now united again Newcastle side could well have European nights over the horizon.