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Aug 17, 2012

Toon target revenge over new-look Spurs

Just 97 days after the most thrilling conclusion to a Premier League season we've ever seen, the 2012-13 campaign kicks-off this weekend and the anticipation is really building. Manchester City's title triumph in May was just incredible. Had someone written a film in which events unfolded like that, people would have thought it too far-fetched and I'm sure there'll never be another finish like it in my lifetime.

Back in 1953, Arsenal won the league with a goal average of just 0.9 more than Preston which I'm sure was very dramatic - but they didn't have the TV cameras beaming footage to hundreds of millions of people all around the world. It was pure theatre.

ESPN's first game of the new season should be a cracker as Newcastle host Tottenham at St James' Park - as I will always call it. We had the reverse fixture at White Hart Lane back in February and it's incredible to think how things have changed at Spurs since then.

Six months ago, Harry Redknapp was being heavily linked with the England job and was given a rousing reception in North London as his team thumped Newcastle 5-0. The fans chanted his name throughout and Spurs' hopes of winning an unlikely title had not yet been abandoned. Fast forward to August and Harry has gone, Ledley King has retired, Luka Modric is on his way to Madrid and Andre Villas-Boas, who was struggling at Chelsea at the time, is the new manager. If you'd proposed this scenario to Spurs fans at the time - along with being denied Champions League football by Chelsea winning the tournament - I'm sure they would have laughed in your face. That's football for you, though: impossible to predict.

For me, the sacking of Harry and hiring of Villas-Boas are the two biggest football shocks of the summer. I could see Harry leaving, but I saw it being on his terms, to take the England job. After Roy Hodgson was chosen instead, I expected Tottenham to sit down with Harry, congratulate him on the work he's done and started planning for the next three or four years. For whatever reason that wasn't the case and there have even been stories that if they qualified for the Champions League last season they wouldn't have offered him a new contract, which is baffling. To the people inside the club who have made the decision it was probably logical, but to most people looking in from the outside, who are not privy to all that's gone on, it just doesn't stack up.

If Harry's departure wasn't enough of a surprise, we were handed another one when his successor was named. Villas-Boas had a nightmare at Chelsea last season and while he shouldn't be blamed for everything that went on there - those players really need to have a long, hard look at themselves - I was still a bit stunned to see him given a second chance at another London club just a few months after failing to turn things around at Stamford Bridge.

He still needs to prove himself in the Premier League and this is a great opportunity to resurrect his career, which was going so well before he moved to England. He arrived with a great reputation and that is not completely in tatters because of what happened with Chelsea; you have to look at the bigger picture and he won the Treble with Porto only 15 months ago. I've always found him an affable, intelligent character and hopefully the Spurs players will be more receptive and actually play for the manager and get behind him. Like all jobs his results will be what counts and that's how he will be judged.

Villas-Boas has had to deal with a raft of departures and has thus far only brought in Jan Verthonghen and Gylfi Sigurdsson, the latter of whom could prove a particularly shrewd bit of business after he lit up the Premier League with Swansea last season. A major headache is up front, where his options are limited to Jermain Defoe and young lad Harry Kane. It is a great chance for Defoe, who can score goals for fun when on form, to establish himself as a first-choice again but I wouldn't want to go into a season with just those two; they lack the physical presence that the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor and Louis Saha previously offered and it means you don't have a Plan B when things aren't going right. Gareth Bale has been playing more central in pre-season and it will be interesting to see whether Villas-Boas continues to utilise him there.

While it has been all change at Spurs, things have pretty much remained the same at Newcastle United. As a manager, you're worried about losing your best players after any season, but particularly with the way Newcastle overachieved last season you'd expect clubs to be looking longingly at some of their stars. We've seen again this week that even Arsenal are a club that are susceptible to losing their best players - and you're delighted if you can keep what you've got and just add to it a little bit in order to excite people, freshen up and cover an area you're a little concerned about.

Holding on to Yohan Cabaye and Chiek Tiote is a huge boost as they dominated the midfield against some of the best teams in the country last season. Newcastle could have perhaps afforded to lose one of Demba Ba or Papiss Cisse, but Cabaye and Tiote are such key players and Alan Pardew must be relieved that he can call on them again. Newcastle don't tend to sign massive names anymore but the players who fans might not have known too much about have so often come good and they will be hoping for the same again from Vurnon Anita, who arrived from Ajax this week.

Expectations will be mixed up at St James' Park ahead of the new season. The realistic supporters will recognise that although they were only one step away from the Champions League last season, that next step up is like climbing a new mountain. But the daydreamers and the optimists might think that, with the same players who achieved fifth last, there's no reason Newcastle can't get back into the competition. I think that's a little hopeful personally, but it's certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. They, like Liverpool and Tottenham, will need Chelsea and Arsenal to struggle, but should St James' Park continue to be a fortress, why not dare to dream.

You could say that by doing very little, Newcastle have strengthened more than Spurs since last season; Pardew has consolidated a squad that was good enough to get them fifth last year and out of the two managers, he will probably be more at ease going into the season and into this first game. It's difficult to pick a winner so early but I do fancy Newcastle in a game that usually brings plenty of goals.

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