The Premier League season came to a conclusion only a month ago today, but in case you were already going through severe withdrawals, you can already officially start to look ahead to next season.
We still don’t know fully what new summer transfers will be taking the pitch for United when the new campaign kicks off in August, but what we do know for certain is who we’ll be facing, as the complete 2011/12 Premier League season fixtures list was released bright and early last Friday.
We’ll be starting our quest for a 20th title at West Brom on August 13, and given how the two meetings this past season went, this could be one of the trickiest season openers United have had in recent seasons.
Speaking of openings, the fixture gods certainly aren’t sparing United for the first couple of months of the season. Following the visit to the Hawthorns, United will face Tottenham and Arsenal at Old Trafford prior to the international break, and after returning to action with a trip to Bolton, we’ll be hosting Chelsea and their new ‘Special One’. Then, after the international break in October, we have trips to Merseyside with a home Manchester derby sandwiched in between. So, the only potential breather in the first 10 league matches of the season comes at home against Norwich City on October 1.
There may be some conspiracy theorists out there who might think that there’s some agenda behind the tough scheduling, but I happen to like it the schedule as it is, from top to bottom. Sure, we do have a penchant for starting slow, and that can be a concern when multiple new faces will still be getting acclimated into the side. However, if ever there’s a good way for a new-look team to gel, this is it. By the end of that stretch, we’ll know what this team is made of; we’ll know if not only is there a step up in quality and performance, but if the new faces have that United mentality and if the side still has that same steely resilience that was a mark of this past season’s team.
If we can make it through the first couple of months with our heads well above water, the next few months are far more favorable. That might well be the true test, because it could be easy to have a dropoff in performances against the lesser sides after having so many tough games early on. That’s a test that I think we’ll pass, because this isn’t Fergie’s first or twenty-first rodeo, but it’s something that must be said nonetheless.
Then, after facing Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham over a span of several weeks from late January to early March, the home stretch is also very favorable, with a trip to Eastlands at the end of April representing the toughest match in an otherwise very navigable run. If we’re locked in a tight title race, having a favorable slate only helps our cause. Not to disparage any of the other top teams, but my expectation at this point is that if United are battling anyone out for the title down the stretch, it’ll be Chelsea again, and their stretch run is a mite tougher than ours, so that’s a paper feather in our cap.
If the title happens to come down to the final day of the season, which it more often does not, it’d be ideal to have the season finale at home, but that’s not the case, as we’ll be visiting Steve Bruce (presuming he’s still in charge) and Sunderland. By contrast, Chelsea are home to Blackburn, City are at home to Q.P.R., and Liverpool are away to Swansea, though Arsenal have a tricky one away to West Brom, who took four of six points against them last season.
Of course, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves right now, since there’s two months of summer transfer madness to wade through, and the season is always full of surprises (but hopefully no weather-related ones this time), but the way the schedule shapes up, we’ll have every opportunity to nail down #20, if we want to take it.