MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - After the opening two games of the Premier League season, the mood around Newcastle United was that of a club in crisis, potentially facing a long battle against relegation.
A home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on the opening day was no disgrace but the manner of their 1-0 loss at Huddersfield Town fuelled speculation about the future of Spanish manager Rafa Benitez.
Media reports claimed that the former Liverpool manager was losing patience with the club’s owner Mike Ashley over transfer business and suggested Newcastle’s return to the Premier League after a year absence was going to be difficult.
Then came three straight wins.
While the underlying issues at the club may not have disappeared, there is a new air of optimism fuelled by victories over West Ham United and Stoke City at home and away to Swansea.
Those wins suggest that while Benitez may still not be happy, he at least has a squad which is capable of competing in the top flight.
On Sunday, Newcastle are away to Brighton and Hove Albion, who also came up last season and have just one win from their opening five encounters.
Brighton manager Chris Hughton previously worked at Newcastle and believes Benitez is benefiting from the signings made for last year’s Championship campaign.
“Recruitment is not just about one window, Newcastle recruited really well last season and some of the players doing particularly well for them at the moment are ones that were bought last season,” said Hughton.
One of those players who has impressed so far is winger Matt Ritchie who dropped down a division last year when he moved to Newcastle from Bournemouth.
Ritchie believes it would be unwise for too much to be read into the club’s current position of fourth-place in the league and says that survival remains the club’s goal.
“You’d be very naive to look at the table now and get excited,” the Scotland international said.
“For the fans, they can look at it and be proud, but we’re five games in and have nine points on the board. We need to hit the 40-point mark before we start getting carried away.”
Newcastle won both the league clashes between the clubs last season but Brighton will take heart from their last home game, when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-1 - their first ever Premier League win.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis