Karl Darlow says Newcastle United are where they deserve to be at Christmas.
Rafa Benitez’s side lead the Championship ahead of the Boxing Day home game against Sheffield Wednesday.
The fixture marks the halfway point in the season.
Newcastle are a point ahead of second-placed Brighton and Hove Albion.
And Darlow, outstanding since his recall to Benitez’s starting XI in late September, knows the challlenge for United now is to maintain their charge towards the Premier League.
Asked for his half-season verdict, the goalkeeper said: “We’re top of the league, which is where we aimed to be at this point in the season.
“I think we can only be happy with how we’ve been doing, especially recently.
“We picked up after that blip. Hopefully, we can get back to that run we had not so long ago and keep winning games.
“We’re delighted to be top at Christmas.
“We’ve got two home games we can look forward to, and hopefully, after them, we can be in a good position to carry on and maintain what we’ve been doing all season.”
Newcastle have won their last three league games.
And the team is full of confidence after away victories over Burton Albion and Wigan Atletic, two teams fighting to stay in the division.
Darlow knew the Championship well before United’s relegation.
The 26-year-old played in the division with former club Nottingham Forest.
Asked if he had noticed a difference in standard to when he last played in it, Darlow said: “I think it’s very similar.
“At the start of the season, you get teams playing football, but then it starts to shape up where you’ve got the teams down the bottom fighting for their lives and it turns into more of a scrap, which you saw at Burton and Wigan.
“They knew they needed to do something to upset us.
“We had a couple of bad pitches to play on, and we knew they’d be tough games for us.
“Those are the games that really help you out through the season.
“If you want to win the league, those are the games you have to win.
“Away from home all season, we’ve been very good.
“I think it shows a great mentality throughout the squad that we’re all aiming to win every single game.
“I think those games where there are 10 minutes to go and everyone’s back behind the ball scrapping for the win show that this squad is together and has got real momentum.”
Only Brighton have conceded fewer goals than Newcastle this season.
And Darlow, a vocal presence behind the back four, feels it has been a team effort.
“I think the team, as a whole, has defended really well right from the front,” said Darlow.
“We’ve turned a lot balls over in midfield and created attacking chances from them.
“It’s been pleasing that there’s been so much effort and work-rate going into keeping clean sheets.”
Meanwhile, United defender Achraf Lazaar has NOT been called up by Morocco for the African Cup of Nations.
The 24-year-old, signed from Palermo in the summer, has been restricted to a handful of appearances.
Mohamed Diame (Senegal), Chancel Mbemba (DR Congo) and Christian Atsu (Ghana) are all expected to be called up by their countries.