Cheik out the giant hole at Newcastle

English Premier League clubs are coping without their African stars playing at the Cup of Nations....with one exception. But managers should never complain about losing their players to this tournament.

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    Poor old Newcastle United. Always the victims.

    No team in the English Premier League is unduly suffering because of the Africa Cup of Nations…apart from the long-suffering, ever-suffering black and whites from the north-east of England.

    They are having to make do without the most influential player in the EPL (apart from Arsenal's Robin van Persie) at this crucial point of the season.

    He has been absolutely superb in helping Newcastle punch way above their weight. And has done it almost completely unnoticed.

    I’m not talking about the brilliant Demba Ba - who scored 15 EPL goals before linking up with Senegal.

    Let’s talk about Cheik Tiote of the Ivory Coast. Anonymous yet utterly irreplaceable.

    His absence has left a hole so big it’s like a meteor has landed on the ground formerly known at St James’ Park (we won't mention its awful sponsored name).

    To finish high in the Premier League you need that man who will run tirelessly for 94 minutes, continuously break up attacks, hold everything together and get your team back on the front foot. Tiote is genuinely the closest thing to the peerless Claude Makalele I’ve seen.

    If he was playing for any of Manchester City, United, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea – and he may well be soon – that team would have a significantly hugely increased chance of winning the title. Only Tottenham, with Scott Parker, may not need him THIS season.

    Does anyone think Fulham’s annihilation of Newcastle (final score 5-2) was not largely down to Tiote’s absence? Just because someone’s work is unglamorous it doesn’t mean it’s not important, vital even.

    Why anyone hasn’t yet broken the bank to sign him already is beyond me. But with apologies to those endlessly loyal Newcastle fans, I don’t know how they can keep hold of him, whether or not he helps the Ivory Coast turn talent into trophy holders.

    Other Premier League clubs have not been hit hard by the awkwardly scheduled Cup of Nations this time. Leaders Manchester City are not devastated by the loss of the Toure brothers, and many of the leading clubs aren’t affected at all.

    The quirk this time is the surprising failure to qualify of two or three of the big guns. No Cameroon, no Egypt, no Nigeria –good news for clubs with these players in their squads.

    In the past there has been genuine irritation from top managers in England. A low point came in 2006 when Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger and others hit out at the timing and regularity of the tournament  The fact the tournament pre-dates the European Championship and is always played at this time of year made that kind of moaning embarrassingly wide of the mark.  

    A switch to ‘odd’ years will mean the tournament is played again next year in South Africa, rather than in two years' time.

    But there is increased acceptance in the English Premier League that if you buy Africa’s best then this is the reality.

    Just don’t try to make that point to Newcastle manager Alan Pardew right now.


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