HATEM Ben Arfa insists that Newcastle United can challenge for a top-five Premier League place this season.
The French forward scored for the second successive game on Saturday as Alan Pardew’s men clinched a 2-1 win at Aston Villa.
Ben Arfa pounced from close range in the 18th minute after good work from full debutant Loic Remy on the left.
Christian Benteke levelled in the 67th minute with a powerful header, but substitute Yoan Gouffran claimed all three points for Newcastle with a neat finish after Villa keeper Brad Guzan parried a Ben Arfa shot.
Ben Arfa talked about replicating Newcastle’s fifth-placed finish two seasons ago after the club’s season-opening 4-0 defeat at Manchester City.
That suggestion was seen as wildly over-optimistic given the result at the Etihad Stadium, last term’s relegation battle and the Tynesiders’ lack of squad depth.
But the 26-year-oldm, buoyed by the Villa Park success, is convinced that the Magpies can challenge for a European place.
“I said at the start of the season we can do top five,” Ben Arfa said. “I’m still thinking that way.”
Ben Arfa was deployed on the right side of a front three, and he tormented Villa’s defence.
“With this formation, we know we can score almost any time,” said Ben Arfa. “There is big talent in this team.
“We have a lot of creative players like Loic Remy and Yohan Cabaye.
“They will make opportunities and serve up big chances. For me, this team is strong. If there’s no injuries for us, we have a very good team.”
Another positive for Ben Arfa was Newcastle’s response to Benteke’s equaliser. Rather than settle for a point, Pardew’s side pressed for a winner.
“We showed a lot of character,” he added. “When they equalised, we kept going to win the game.
“That is very important, and it shows we have a strong team.
“It’s not always about your football, sometimes you have to show you are strong in the mind.
“We have showed we have big characters here. Everybody done their job properly, and I am very proud of my team.
“The win is important, but the most important thing was that after the goal we kept on going. We didn’t just take 1-1. We didn’t settle for a point.
“If we want to be a big team, we have to be more like that.
“The big clubs are winners in their minds. They have the winning mentality, and don’t settle for anything less.
“Manchester United are like that, and we need to have that as well to be in the top five.”
Pardew hailed the impact of Remy, whose industry and creativity led to Ben Arfa’s opening goal, and feels his team now has a balance and attacking threat that has not been seen since Demba Ba’s January departure to Chelsea.
“I’ve been saying since Demba left that we’ve not really carried that offensive threat,” Pardew said.
“Loic gave us that. He gave us that bit of quality. He did a fantastic job in terms of the role in the team he had.
“I know we’ve had a lot of criticism playing the shape that we do when we play the five – with the two wide players up the top of the pitch – but when it works, and it did work when we finished fifth, it works really well.
“We won six on the trot with that system. It’s something that we’ve got to get right home and away this season.”
Villa manager Paul Lambert bemoaned the way his players defended for both of the visitors’ goals.
“We never got going in the first half, and you can’t lose goals the way we did and expect to get something,” said the Scot, who has suffered three straight defeats since winning at Arsenal on the opening day.
“We started the second half really well. But in the first half we lost a really poor goal, and I think the second one is even worse.
“We had got back into the game, and I think the momentum was with us. But we can’t defend that way.”
Aston Villa: Guzan, Lowton, Vlaar, Okore (Clark 30), Luna, El Ahmadi (Kozak 67), Westwood, Delph, Weimann (Tonev 88), Benteke, Agbonlahor. Subs not used: Bacuna, Helenius, Steer, Sylla. Booked: Delph. Goal: Benteke 67
Newcastle: Krul, Debuchy, Yanga-Mbiwa, Coloccini, Santon, Sissoko, Anita (Tiote 74), Ben Arfa, Cabaye (Sammy Ameobi 88), Remy (Gouffran 63), Cisse. Subs not used: Elliot, Marveaux, S Taylor, Dummett. Booked: Yanga-Mbiwa, Cabaye, Debuchy, Gouffran. Goals: Ben Arfa 18, Gouffran 73
Att: 37,554. Ref: Mike Dean (Wirral).