Albion boss Chris Hughton says Newcastle are entitled to be title favourites - but he has warned his old club they face stiff competition in the Championship.

Hughton expects Aston Villa along with Sheffield Wednesday and Derby - the other two sides knocked out of the play-offs last season - to be difficult opponents for his promotion-hunting Seagulls and the Toon.

With the big kick-off just four weeks away, who finishes top next season is a foregone conclusion as far as bookmakers are concerned.

Newcastle are 2-1 to make an immediate return to the Premier League next season under Rafa Benitez after showing their intent via the £22 million double signing of Bournemouth winger Matt Ritchie and Crystal Palace striker Dwight Gayle.

Villa are next-best at 9-1, with Albion fifth favourites at 14-1 behind Norwich and Derby following last season's near-miss.

Hughton, who took Newcastle straight back up six years ago, turning St James Park into a fortress, said: "I think they will find it hard because the league is hard.

"Ritchie and Gayle are two Premier League players but they know the Championship as well.

"The impression I get straight away from their purchases is they are buying to get promotion from the Championship.

"They have bought two very good players. Because of the financial clout they have I expect them to buy well for the Championship and how ever hard they find it one thing is guaranteed, it will be a tough place to go. I expect them to have a good season."

Hughton (pictured below with assistant Colin Calderwood) also expects ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid chief Benitez to adapt to the Championship.

The Argus: "He's a travelled manager and a very good manager. Even though he hasn't experienced it he'll know what the Championship is like.

"He's very good at what he does. Benitez sets his teams up very well and I think that will be a plus in this division. He is just going to have to do that more often than he is used to, with the volume of games.

"I think he'll cope because he is an adaptable manager. They are entitled to be favourites and I'd be very surprised if the two players they have just signed are the only players they bring in. I think they'll have a real go at getting out of this division.

"The favourites will be determined by the end of the (transfer) window and what work they've done. If Villa bring in several players to do the same they will be on the same level. Both of them will be very difficult places to go.

"It lifts the profile of the Championship when you have got Newcastle and Villa in particular, no direspect to Norwich."

Ritchie's £12 million move to Newcastle dwarfs the return to Albion on a season-long loan of his former Bournemouth team-mate Glenn Murray.

Sheffield Wednesday, the Seagulls' conquerors in the play-off semi-finals last season, have made a Murray-type signing by recruiting experienced centre-forward Steven Fletcher after he was released by Sunderland.

Hughton also believes Derby, Albion's opening hosts on August 6, will be dangerous under new manager Nigel Pearson.

Hughton said: "Sheffield Wednesday recruited well last year and if I look at their forward options at the moment, Hooper, Forestieri and Fletcher and Nuhiu and also the Portugese lad (Lucas Joao), they've certainly got good offensive options.

"There are teams that will have a real go. I don't think Derby will stop until they achieve what they want to achieve. Sheffield Wednesday will also have no fear in recruiting this summer. They are two who in particular I think will have a real financial go to get promotion."

Hughton, currently plotting another challenge by Albion on a training camp in Tenerife, faces four new managers before the trip to Newcastle at the end of August - Pearson, Philippe Montanier(Nottingham Forest) Alan Stubbs (Rotherham) and Jaap Stam (Reading).

Albion's final two away games are Norwich - another of his former clubs - and Villa.

He said: "New managers want to start very well, so if we thought it was tough that makes it a little bit tougher.

"The first things were the tough away games to start with and then the tough away games to finish with, Villa away last game of the season and Norwich two games before that.

"It is what it is. We had a very tough finish last season. But I suppose it's all relative to where you are (in the table)."

As well as Murray, Hughton has brought Steve Sidwell back to Albion permanently after the experienced midfielder ended last season on loan from Stoke.

Sidwell shrugged off a knee injury sustained in the first leg defeat against Sheffield at Hillsborough to put in an outstanding display in the second leg stalemate at the Amex.

He said: "It was important for me to play well because if I was going to leave, I wanted to end on a high note, but I wanted to put in a performance that was going to stick in the mind of the manager, the board and the chairman to say he's someone good around the place that we can have for next season."

Hughton will need that kind of commitment again from Sidwell, a Championship winner with Reading, and the rest of his players to contend again against Newcastle and the rest.