Newcastle United were last season's surprise package at the top of the Premier League. Although they were never serious contenders to earn a top four spot -- it would have taken an even more epic collapse from Tottenham Hotspur than they actually managed for Newcastle to have finished in a Champions League spot -- they were excellent throughout the season, powered largely by a superb core.
It's difficult to pick an area in which the Magpies didn't perform well last season. At goalkeeper, they had Tim Krul, who managed to put in a good enough year that people finally took notice of just how strong a shot-stopper he is. The centre back pairing of Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor were as good as any in the league until Taylor went down with an injury in December. Yohan Cabaye and Cheik Tiote make a formidable midfield pairing. And the Senegalese strike force of Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba terrorised the rest of the league.
With Cisse around for a full year and Taylor seemingly recovered from his Achilles problem*, Newcastle could be poised for another great season. Right? Well... not so fast.
*He was attached to a chariot and dragged around Patroclus' grave three times.
Here are some numbers for your perusal: 64, 56, 25, 25, 5, 19 ,10, 7. By goal differential Newcastle were the eighth best team in the Premier League, not the fifth. And while there are legitimate reasons to think that the Magpies were a better team than pure goal differential suggests, it'd be difficult to argue that they were anything like as good as their points tally suggested.
So, this summer, they either needed to bring in reinforcements or get used to the idea that they were more Europa League contenders than Champions League ones. Although new names have come in, they're not thoroughly impressive ones -- Gael Bigirimana, Romain Amalfitano, Curtis Good and Vurnon Anita are not going to get you into the top four. Can Newcastle challenge the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea next season? Sure, but they certainly shouldn't be expected to.
Instead, this year will serve as something of a consolidation season for Alan Pardew and company. They're certainly allowed to have one, considering that last year was only their second since being promoted from the Championship, but you have to worry that being so successful and/or overperforming in the 2011/12 campaign will lead to false hopes for the 2012/13 edition of Newcastle.
Last year: 5th; 19W 8D 11L.
This year: 7th. Newcastle are almost certainly the best team outside of the top six, and seventh would be a very successful season for them. However, expectations are almost certainly going to be too high after overachieving last year.
Key player(s): Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse. There's almost no way Cisse can continue tearing up the Premier League at the rate he managed in the second half of last season, but he's no one-hit wonder. The centre forward was brilliant for two full year at SC Freiburg in the Bundesliga, and even if he reverts back to that sort of level he's 'only' an elite centre forward rather than a minor deity.
Cabaye, meanwhile, is one of the more quietly effective midfielders in the division. Capable of doing his share of defending as well as building up attacks, the French international is perhaps even more important in the middle than his more destroy-y counterpart Cheik Tiote. A strong season from Cabaye means that the frontmen will be well supplied and the back line given adequate protection.
SB Nation Blog: Coming Home Newcastle.