By George Ankers
If anyone was worried about Newcastle's exceptional season last time around setting the bar too high, they can rest easy.
It would not have been difficult to write the Magpies off. They have long been, after all, the Premier League’s foremost comedy club, Mike Ashley the notorious template for a mad owner. The word "typical" was already forming on the lips of some cynics anticipating a drop back to earth.
But, in case a promising summer hadn't made things clear enough, Newcastle's 2-1 win over Tottenham on the opening day showed that everything is in place to make another challenge for the top four – and maybe a more successful one this time.
After their fell-at-the-last-hurdle fifth-place finish in 2011-12, the transfer vultures were out. Demba Ba, Cheikh Tiote and Yohan Cabaye were among the key players reported to be on their way. It seemed like not being able to make the last push into the Champions League would be the undoing of this exciting young side.
|LOOK WHO'S BA-CK
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|55'||GOAL!! Pardew shows that he has the Midas touch! Ba peels off his marker, who gets his header horribly wrong, takes one touch to control and strokes a curling effort into the far corner with his second. Sublime finish.
The Senegalese was back with a bang on Saturday, though. After a quiet first half with plenty of work but little penetration, Ba was on hand early in the second to dispatch a fabulous effort into the net for the opening goal. It served as a reminder that Alan Pardew’s side are not a one-man show up front.
Cisse, by comparison, had one of his quietest games so far in a black-and-white shirt, but the nature of his goals last term leave no doubt that he is not a fluke. If Pardew can get both firing at once, allied to the sublime passing of Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa's captivating trickery, the Toon will score more than their fair share this season.
The anticipated strength of their challenge comes from their settled situation. Newcastle's incoming transfers have been evolutionary rather than game-changing; Vurnon Anita is the biggest name so far, who will provide a strong alternative option in several positions.
If PSV left-back Erik Pieters, who watched the game at Sports Direct Arena, can be secured to follow his countryman into the club, a major defensive issue still hanging from last term should be solved.
And, while the Magpies quietly build, their rivals for a top-four spot have endured mixed summers.
Arsenal's troubles are well documented but an initially promising close season has turned to confusion and frustration as last season’s top goalscorer and assist-maker move on in quick succession. A 0-0 draw against Sunderland does not spell doom in itself but they have once again been denied the settled pre-season that they so badly need – the target will be fourth.
Liverpool's transformation under Brendan Rodgers is quite clearly a work in progress – their 3-0 defeat by West Brom was eerily reminiscent of the worst of last season, with plenty of work to be done yet before they can expect a Champions League position.
Meanwhile, Newcastle's opening-day opponents, Tottenham, have still not sorted the two issues that have defined their summer from start to finish.
Luka Modric's departure to Real Madrid is inevitable now but Daniel Levy's hardball negotiation technique means that the money from the deal, required to facilitate necessary moves for a midfield replacement and at least one striker, will arrive far later than is ideal.
|TOP FOUR TOON?
|16/1||Newcastle are 16/1 to finish in the top four in 2012-13 with William Hill|
The search for a forward rumbles on with Emmanuel Adebayor still not secured on a permanent deal and Spurs were noticeably missing his presence on Tyneside – or that of anyone who could prove a threat in the air up front. They will challenge for the top four as expected but are they any more superior to Newcastle than they were last term? No.
All this is not to say that the Magpies are nailed-on to go one better than 2011-12. They had to work extremely hard to get as far as they did last season and will need to do so again, but their positive start is proof that this team were not a flash in the pan. Underestimate them at your peril.
Follow George Ankers on