NOT playing well but winning, Newcastle United now have the look of a team who are comfortable in their own boots near the top of the Premier League.
That is some statement to make about a club which just 12 months ago felt like it was on the brink of one of those infamous black and white implosions.
However, after a year of upward progress, there now feels like a permanence to United’s occupation of a dizzying position in the Premier League.
Having dispatched Tottenham without firing on all cylinders, a scratch team did more than enough in Greece midweek to keep their Europa League ambitions on track.
It is the kind of happy trait which you associate with teams which circle the top four, and few could argue that United are now right on the brink of being included in that bracket. Even perennial critic Mark Lawrenson, who regularly irritated United supporters for a perceived lack of acknowledgement of their achievements last year, has been moved to concede they are contenders for a top-four slot this year.
The question is, will it stay that way before Friday’s transfer deadline? Equally crucially, how close are they to genuinely challenging for honours with two pedigree recruits?
The first point is crucial here. United have received no more than informal enquiries and whispers through third parties about their top players.
However, the final six days of the transfer window could cause a disruption to Alan Pardew’s carefully-laid plans.
All are vulnerable if clubs approach Newcastle ready to offer them the chance to make a significant profit.
That means Cheick Tioté can go for in excess of £20m and Papiss Cissé, curiously lethargic in these opening games of the season, might be sold for around the same figure. The logic is United already have Vurnon Anita on board and could yet snap up Andy Carroll to replace Cissé.
Hoever, we must cling dearly to the hope the Newcastle board have sensed the fact this is another Premier League season brimming with opportunity.
We know the business model dictates irrational offers must be taken on board, but this idea Newcastle’s blueprint means they must accept certain offers is simply not true.
If Mike Ashley has seen enough in this squad to persuade him United can realistically challenge at the top of the table, he must resist all bids.
On top of that, it would be nice to think Pardew would be rewarded for his achievements with another two senior players of a high calibre to enable his team to generate real momentum in this first half of the season. At the moment, that doesn’t look hugely likely. Mathieu Debuchy remains on United’s radar but it would take a U-turn from Lille over the price to force that move.
While the spin surrounding Andy Carroll means we will struggle to ascertain United’s true intentions surrounding their former number nine. The club don’t expect to ‘pull one out of the bag’ we haven’t heard of yet, with the scouting department having already moved on to targets for January and next summer rather than identifying emergency options for this summer.
Still, there are signs from these first days of the season United can mount a realistic challenge for the top four if they make additions.
For all those pretenders to the top four who have strengthened, there is an equal number who appear to have stood still.
Today’s opponents Chelsea look stronger, just like Manchester United – despite their surprising defeat by an Everton side who must also be regarded as dark horses for a Champions League spot.
Below them, is there much to worry Newcastle?
Liverpool look to be in transition and after the folly of King Kenny they are short of the financial backing to make the additions they seem to need.
Similarly, Arsenal are weaker, although Santi Cazorla could be the star of the season on initial impressions. Andre Villas-Boas is playing with fire at Tottenham and the North Londoners have already been dispatched by Newcastle on what was an underpar day for the Magpies.
Of the rest? Do Newcastle fear Aston Villa, West Ham, Stoke and West Brom?
An examination of Newcastle’s credentials arrives at tea time with a United side bolstered by the potential returns of Fabricio Coloccini, Hatem Ben Arfa and Demba Ba looking to try and unsettle an ominous Chelsea team.