Wigan boss Roberto Martinez will clearly be taking nothing for granted come the opening day of the new Premiership season.
For the much-admired Latics chief – left to play host to the Canaries’ return to the top flight by the Premier League fixture computer yesterday – insists that the competition is only getting tougher year-on-year.
And that while the ‘Big Four’ might now be nearer the ‘Big Six’ as free-spending Manchester City and a Harry Redknapp-inspired Spurs ease away from the rest of the Premiership pack, for the merely mortals left in the top flight it promises to be another dog-eat-dog season – scrapping it out from the very first game of the season to the very last.
“It’s fair to say that every season the competition gets tougher,” Martinez told the local Evening Post newspaper ahead of this week’s fixture announcement.
For Paul Lambert’s Canaries and the Yellow And Green Army, their 2011-2012 campaign opens on the road north with that trip to the DW Stadium.
Their first home game of the new campaign is straight out of the Premiership School of Hard Knocks – playing host to Tony Pulis’ FA Cup finalists’, Stoke City.
After that and it’s the first encounter with one of the said ‘Big Six’ – away to Chelsea.
Martinez’ thoughts are worth repeating. Not least for the fact that the Spaniard performed a minor miracle on the final day of the season by keeping the Latics in the top flight for another year – and the fact that one of his former charges, Swansea City, are joining the Canaries back in the big time.
Hence his opinions deserve to carry some weight. And like Lambert, Martinez will know that the contest to stay up starts from the very first game of the season; it’s not something – ideally – that you would want to have still hanging over you come the last.
“There’s always been a big difference between the top four and the rest, but all of a sudden we now have six teams who will be realistically challenging for the title,” the Wigan chief suggested.
“The rest of the sides are getting better prepared to compete against those top-six sides and, although the gulf is still big, as we saw last year there are more and more surprises occurring.
“And I expect the same thing to happen again next season, with Queens Park Rangers, Norwich and Swansea getting promoted.
“They are three clubs who will be very confident of staying in the Premier League – and I expect it to be an even tougher competition next year.”
For his part, Lambert was looking forward to a tough opening trip – buoyed by the knowledge that the Canaries would, inevitably, have a huge travelling support urging them on.
“Everyone at the football club will be looking forward to it and I’m sure we’ll take a massive support up there with us on the opening day,” he told the club’s own website, as the Canaries duly added Manchester United defender Ritchie De Laet to his Premiership pack.
As previously reported, the 22-year-old joins the Norfolk club on a season-long loan – offering the City chief fresh options right across his back-line.
Who he ousts – if anyone – for that trip to the DW is for the next two months to decide as the City squad start again with a blank piece of paper form and fortune-wise.
Lambert knows that part of the key to a successful Premiership survival campaign is getting off to a decent start; be nice to prise at least one win out of those opening three games. With the greatest respect to all concerned, nicking three points out of Stamford Bridge might just be an ask too far – even for City’s star manager.
“Roberto Martinez has done a great job there and I’m sure it’ll be a great game,” said Lambert.
“You look at back-to-back away games at Manchester United and Liverpool in October and that just shows the level we’ve worked hard to get to.
“We’ve earned the right to be here – it is a great challenge and exciting times for the club and the fans.”
Looking at that fixture list again and the computer has, at least, spared City a run of three games against any of the ‘Big Six’ – a period of games that can, all too easily, knock the stuffing out of the unprepared.
So as tough as those back-to-back trips to Old Trafford and Anfield look, the fact that a home clash with Swansea City is squeezed in between at least offers Norwich the opportunity to keep the points coming in. A point at either of those away games would keep the Canaries flying high.
And if the season does go right down to the very final wire, then at least the Canaries are at home on the final day. Home to Aston Villa isn’t the worst game to end on; far better – hopefully – than a Fulham away.