Manchester City's title defence will be challenged by roller-coaster fixture list
Having got the "difficult second title" out of the way, Manchester City fans woke up on Wednesday morning wondering who would be the first team to face the Blues in their second defence of the Premier League championship. In the end, the news was a bit "same old story"... It was Newcastle, just like last season's opening -- except this time it's the reverse fixture.
There's always a running battle when it's announced what the fixture computer has thrown up (before the TV companies and cup replays hack it to bits and plaster it back together in a different order, that is). It seems as though there are two sets of fans: Those who don't think it matters who plays when because all teams face each other twice anyway, and those who think it's vital to a team's chances.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two points. A prime example from last season is that the Blues lost at Cardiff in the second game, largely because the Bluebirds were still flying high from promotion, and their chairman hadn't gone radio rental. Chelsea and Liverpool both visited the Cardiff City Stadium when the Welsh side were virtually dead and buried, having a much easier time.
Yet the point remains -- City should have won that game anyway, having been in front in the second half.
It's fair to say that the Blues don't have the easiest of starts when it comes to defending their title. The three other teams that qualified for the Champions League are all opponents in the first five matches, with a notoriously difficult trip to Stoke (where City haven't ever won in the Premier League in six attempts) sandwiched in the middle. Still, it'd be good to get them out of the way and build up some steam in the runs of the "easier" games ... I use that term cautiously.
The Manchester derbies come along in November and April, with the first being just enough time away for Manuel Pellegrini to assess the impact Louis van Gaal is having at the Reds, and the second being near enough to the end of the season to be crucial to both sides.
One of the biggest concerns for City's fans might be the Champions League, with the group games falling in between some tough matches. A trip to the Emirates and Chelsea's visit to the Etihad flank the first, while the aforementioned opening Manchester derby follows the third. Away games with Southampton and Leicester, both of which could be difficult depending on their respective fortunes, follow the final two group games respectively.
The now traditional 1-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light will come in December (honestly, I don't know why City don't just agree to give Sunderland the game and let both sides have a rest week), while January looks like another tough month -- with trips to Chelsea and Everton flanking the home game with Arsenal. Pray for an easy FA Cup draw with no replays, City fans!
However, the fixture computer has been quite kind when it comes to the run-in. At perhaps one of the most important times of the year, City face just one of last season's top six in their final six games -- with the last match against one of 2013-14's top four coming in a February trip to Anfield.
In fact, only three of the last 11 opponents were top-half finishers last season. So there's certainly opportunity for Pellegrini's men to build up some momentum for a final push toward the title.
Finally, there's the standout Christmas period -- which could be a positive time for the Blues, too. Three of the four fixtures that come in quick succession are at home, meaning there's little traveling for the squad, and the three to start the run (Crystal Palace at home, West Brom away and Burnley at home) are very winnable.
That's before the inevitable home draw with Sunderland on New Year's Day.
All in all, the opening few weeks of the season might not make pleasant watching for City fans if all doesn't go to plan, but there's certainly plenty of positives to be taken from the fixtures heading into the spring.