When English giants Chelsea, around the beginning of the current season, sent Christian Atsu on the Ghanaian’s fourth loan spell since his move to London from Oporto, few held any hopes for a young man who had increasingly drifted towards the periphery of the picture envisaged by the men who plotted his arrival at Stamford Bridge.
Only the first of the temporary transfers Atsu had been farmed out on — to Dutch outfit Vitesse Arnhem, where he was voted by fans as that club’s best player for the 2013/14 season — brought real success. The experiences that followed, at English Premier League sides Everton and Bournemouth, yielded very little due to a dire lack of opportunities and fitness issues respectively. The next adventure, at Spain’s Malaga, wasn’t so bad — but it wasn’t so good either for a man who is yet to start a competitive game for his parent club.
The stint at St James’ Park thus seemed, at worst, one loan move too many; at best, it represented Atsu’s entry into last chance saloon, with respect to his prospects as a future Chelsea star. Thankfully, it’s a chance he clutched with little hesitance.
Opportunities for Atsu were sparse at the beginning, but his undoubted brilliance filtered through, easing him gradually into the plans of Rafael Benitez, the Magpies’ manager, as well as the hearts of the club’s faithful. Before long — especially in the latter half of the season — Atsu started to earn more minutes and greater trust, contributing enough to merit all that has come his way of late. On Monday night, when his countrymen were reliving Lionel Messi’s Clasico moment of genius and Wayne Rooney’s return to goalscoring on Sports Station and/or Highlights on Ghanaian television, Atsu played perhaps his biggest role yet in a Newcastle shirt. Against Preston North End in Newcastle’s penultimate home game of the season, Benitez’s charges let slip an early lead, only for Atsu to restore it with a fine finish shortly before recess. It was an advantage the Toon Army never relinquished, not even after Atsu left the pitch to some applause with a third of an hour to go. By the time the winger had signed off, Newcastle had wrapped up a 4-1 victory, sealing a return to the English top-flight at the first time of asking, just days after Championship leaders Brighton & Hove Albion had secured their own ticket.
Atsu may yet have a part to play in what remains of Newcastle’s campaign, with rotation-obsessed Benitez likely to grant his fringe players — a category Atsu, despite his recent rise to considerable prominence, hasn’t entirely emerged from – game-time, and the 25-year-old would seek to add to his four-goal, three-assist haul before the climax. And then?
Well, and then Newcastle could exercise the option they have to make permanent Atsu’s stay – at least for the player’s sake. A return to Chelsea, given the well-oiled juggernaut Antonio Conte has constructed that’s humming along just fine, won’t be in Atsu’s best interests. Remaining at Newcastle would, though, and Chelsea should be willing to part with the lad they apparently don’t regard too highly anyway for a reasonably modest fee.
Atsu has proved himself enough in 30 appearances (nearly half of them starts) to stake a claim for extended life on Tyneside beyond the current season, even if Newcastle decide to bring in reinforcements to ensure a better experience in the Premier League than their last. He’s found a home with the Geordies, fans who adore him already, and a manager whose unwavering belief in meritocracy would give him a fair crack at matching the hype that brought him to England four years ago.