Huge mountain to climb for newly-promoted Premier League clubs
Leicester City, Burnley and Queens Park Rangers all made their return to the top flight for the 2014-15 Premier League season, but come season's end only one of these teams has a realistic chance of beating the drop.
Promotion to the Premier League is arguably the best achievement in English football outside of winning the Premier League or FA Cup. With it comes riches, publicity, and most of all expectations. Sky Bet Championship winners Leicester have the toughest early season schedule. The Foxes host Everton, travel to Chelsea and then take on Arsenal and Manchester United, respectively, at the King Power Stadium in their first five games.
Manager Nigel Pearson will be expecting a good return on club-record signing Leonardo Ulloa, who arrived from Brighton where he scored 16 goals in all competitions last season. Other than the 6' 3" inch Argentine, there aren't any real goal scorers in the squad. Paul Konchesky, Matthew Upson, Gary Taylor-Fletcher and David Nugent provide some Premier League experience but that alone cannot guarantee survival.
The lack of firepower up front puts Leicester in a tough spot, unless they can sign some proven strikers before the transfer window shuts. A place in the Premier League beyond this season seems beyond Pearson and his men. Fortunately, they're under no illusions.
"We look at our fixture list and it's obvious we don't have the easiest starts to the season," Wes Morgan told Sky Sports earlier this week. "We understand the Premier League is a completely different ball game, playing up against some of the best players in the world, but if we focus on our jobs and reignite the form we showed last season then we know how good we can be."
Meanwhile, Burnley's last appearance in England's top tier was in 2009-10, a season marred by then manager Owen Coyle's midseason departure followed by relegation. Five years on, the Clarets have one of the best up-and-coming managers in Sean Dyche, who led them to automatic promotion.
Dyche's men open the season at home to Chelsea and two weeks later host Louis van Gaal's Manchester United. Do not expect another shocker from the home side, as fans of both sides will remember Robbie Blake's winning goal from 2009. Facing two big teams like Chelsea and United doesn't help when trying to build a solid foundation to a campaign.
"We're not naive, we understand the challenges and we understand some of the powerful clubs that are out there and some of the players that are out there," Dyche admitted to reporters this week. "We want to be relentless in our attitude towards games."
Burnley's defensive strengths could see them take points off Swansea City, Crystal Palace and Sunderland before facing West Brom in the first relegation battle of the season. A limited budget won't bring any high-profile signings, so strikers Danny Ings and Sam Vokes will be vital to the team's success. Scoring goals is going to be Burnley's biggest task, but if Ings and Vokes stay fit and start firing on all cylinders they have a better chance of nicking points from the small clubs.
Yet, the Premier League can be a cruel beast, and this season will most likely end the same way as it did five years ago for the Clarets: Relegation.
Queens Park Rangers marked their return to the top flight in dramatic style, with Bobby Zamora scoring late on against Derby County in the playoff final. Manager Harry Redknapp told the Daily Mirror he would've packed it in if the Hoops had not won promotion.
"If we had not gone up this year I would have stopped," said Redknapp. "I would not have gone back for another year in the Championship, that doesn't appeal to me anymore. I'm excited to be going to Anfield and Old Trafford, but I went to Wembley that day knowing that if we had got beat I'd have turned it in, definitely. With 10 minutes to go I was just thinking, 'I don't know what golf club to join next year.'"
Since that sunny day at Wembley, Harry "Houdini" has brought in Rio Ferdinand, who may not always be the fittest, but brings a wealth of experience and guidance. In addition to Ferdinand is the arrival of the young Steven Caulker from Cardiff, a good signing to help solidify the defense.
QPR opens the season at home to Hull City, then travel to Tottenham and Manchester United in their first five games. Not ideal teams to play against early on, but you have to play everyone at some point. In their favor, QPR have much more Premier League experience in their roster than their promoted counterparts, which will definitely benefit them as the season goes on. Many of the players have been in relegation battles before, and this should steer them in the right direction in terms of retaining their Premier League status for another season.
Goalkeeper Julio Cesar has been recalled from his loan spell at Toronto FC and will face competition from Robert Green, though Brazil's number one will surely be the favorite to start. French striker Loic Remy seems to be staying put after his move to Liverpool fell through. In addition to experience, if Rangers can keep their disciplinary record in order, Redknapp might have to hold off on joining a new golf club for another season.
"If we can stay up, I'd be delighted," Redknapp added. "If you offered me fourth from bottom now, I'd bite your hand off. I could talk cobblers and say we want to finish in the top half. But just to stay in the Premier League would be great for us -- consolidate and keep building. We have been a yo-yo club for too long, we just need to become an established Premier League club."