I didn't for a second think they'd go down but at the start of the season I did feel that Newcastle would be in the lower regions of the Barclays Premier League this year.
My reasons for this were as follows:
The loss of key players
Alan Pardew and Newcastle United lost not one but four of their best players during the two previous transfer windows in Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton. These four players didn't just help Newcastle regain their top flight status but they ensured that the club were more of a threat to the top 10 then the bottom three.
Alan Pardew's lack of transfer budget
The £35million sale of Carroll hasn't been used to enhance Pardew's transfer budget with the relatively cheap additions of Yohan Cabaye and Gabriel Obertan the highlight of an otherwise low key transfer window for Newcastle United.
Their recent 4-2 defeat away to Norwich City exposed how thin of a squad Newcastle have. A back four of Ryan Taylor, Danny Simpson, James Perch and Davide Santon only highlighted how vital Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor are to Newcastle. Their first XI are very good, but I felt if Pardew had to rotate the squad for any reason, the club would suffer; however I was wrong as the likes of Danny Guthrie and Ryan Taylor when called apon this season have been brilliant.
Despite my pre-season expectations of Newcastle United they have not only exceeded them, but probably their own too. The Geordie side currently find themselves 6th in the Barclays Premier League, a point clear of Liverpool following their 1-0 victory over QPR on Sunday, and a Europa League finish is now a distinct possibility.
Newcastle have learnt massively from their brief spell in the Championship and despite the addition of talented forward players, they have built from the back this season conceding just 25 goals in their 21 Premier League matches. Club Captain Coloccini has been one of the players of the season, and after opting against leaving the club two years ago, he has been in the form of his life. Prior to his arrival at Newcastle, the Argentine international had played for seven different clubs in a period of just 10 years; however he finally appears to have settled in the North of England, much to Newcastle's gain. The curly-haired defender's form is sure to have alerted Alejandro Sabella, as Argentina look to re-structure a defence that was so horribly exposed at the recent Copa America. Coloccini hasn't been the only excellent defender at the club this year; the whole back four have performed at a consistently good standard, and until the recent 3-0 home defeat to Chelsea, Pardew hadn't made a change to their defence in 14 Premier League matches.
Another key member of the Newcastle back five has been the goalkeeper Tim Krul, who despite his tender age for a shot stopper has been in incredible form. During a season you can usually lay blame with the keeper for on average three goals a season; however Krul for me is yet to have been at fault for a single goal, admittedly we are only just past the half way stage in the season, but that's still an impressive feat. As a goalkeeper for me Krul has the lot: he's excellent shot stopper, good in the air and appears to communicate well with his defence, and with man of the match displays a common occurance this season, Krul's form doesn't appear to be a temporary thing. Krul's fantastic season hasn't gone unnoticed and with rumoured interest from Spurs, Pardew will hope his Dutch number one won't be joining the recent exodus at the club.
Newcastle on the road this season have been impressive, with their only three defeats coming at Manchester City, Liverpool and Norwich, with the latter down to their lengthy injury list. A reason for why they've been successful away from home this year is because of their excellent team work with another Argentine Jonas Gutierrez a perfect example of the commitment and heavy workload put in. Gary Neville perfectly highlighted the tracking back Gutierrez did following their recent 3-1 success away to Stoke, as the winger helped an out of position Ryan Taylor deal with the threat of Jermaine Pennant. Gutierrez isn't alone in his tremendous commitment with the summer signing Cabaye another who you wouldn't suspect to be a hard worker off the ball, putting in a fantastic shift during the same game.
The loss of Nolan and Barton left a huge hole in the middle of the field; however Pardew was quick to address this with the £6million addition of Cabaye. The Frenchman and Check Tiote work beautifully together and despite both suffering little knocks this season, they both are instrumental in any Newcastle success. The duo's passing success rate is the highest in the club, with Cabaye (up to the 9th December) averaging a brilliant 80%. Danny Guthrie has come in to replace Tiote frequently this season when the Ivorian has been injured, and with the Ivory Coast international off to the African Cup of Nations, the former Liverpool man will have to step up to the plate to replace the hugely popular Tiote.
If my pre-season expectations of Newcastle were wrong, then my prediction that Ba would flop in English football were incredibly wide of the mark. When the Senegalese international first joined West Ham, before he played a game I had written him off as another poor Hammers foreign import; however seven goals in just twelve Premier League matches for a relegated side proved he could cut it in the Barclays Premier League. If his first six months in English football were good, then his second were fantastic. 15 goals in just 19 games means only Robin Van Persie is above him in the Premier League goal scorers list and with two hat-tricks to boot, Ba has been the bargain of the season. Ba has not only showing an eye for a goal, but his movement and ability to find space in the box is up there with the best in the league. As you will see in the video below, Ba always manages to pull clear of the last defender in the penalty area, giving himself space to get a tap-in. The boy doesn't only score tap-ins; he is fantastic in the air; has a great first touch and can score a set-piece. With Ba now off to the African Cup of Nations, Newcastle face a tough few fixtures ahead of them as for me Best and Ameobi aren't in his league. With rumours circulating about a possible release clause in his contract, it wouldn't surprise me to see a really big side take a punt on the injury-prone forward as after seeing him, I believe he has everything a top class striker needs.
The gaffer Alan Pardew deserves a lot of credit too. The former West Ham manager was unfairly sacked in his last three managerial jobs and his last stint in English football was in League One with Southampton, so he wasn't the fans number one choice to replace the popular Chris Hughton during last season; however he has proved many people wrong, including myself. From the outside looking in Pardew appears to have great man management ability and despite Hatem Ben Arfa's recent comments about the long ball football at Newcastle, for me they have played some attractive stuff this season, only using the long ball when appropriate or a set tactic, with the Manchester United game a perfect example of this. Pardew has had a relatively small budget available to him, despite the massive income of transfer fee's from the recent sale of big players, but the big two additions in Cabaye and the injury prone risky move of Ba have proved fantastic deals. At this stage of the season there are four managers who are up for the manager of the year award: Paul Lambert at Norwich; Brendan Rodgers at Swansea; Harry Redknapp at Tottenham and Pardew, and for me Pardew gets it everytime.
The real question is can Newcastle maintain their brilliant start and I believe they can! If they can get through a difficult January, due to the African Cup of Nations taking Ba and Tiote away for a month and possibly add players then I honestly don't see why they can't finish seventh, which when you consider those who are above them and what they've spend and the squad depth available to them, then it would be an incredible achievement.