The World Cup has drawn to a close and the pre-season programme is now in full swing. It's purgatory for English football fans though, who have only the fitness attaining fixtures and the transfer window to keep them occupied until the Premier League campaign returns in 26 days.
To whet their appetite, we here at WhoScored.com have analysed the opening six fixtures of each team and, using our unique rating system, have taken the opportunity to determine how sides could fair using respective home and away ratings from the 2013/14 season.
For example, Arsenal's first game of the season is at home to Crystal Palace, so we will take the Eagles' away rating (6.83) from last term to determine the potential difficulty of the London derby. Along with the 5 other teams they'll face - Everton, Leicester, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Tottenham - we will work out the average rating of the Gunners' opening 6 opponents and the team with the highest average will equate to the toughest start.
While the three newly promoted teams - Burnley, Leicester and QPR - gained a rating from last season, the gulf in class between the Championship and Premier League means it would be unfair to compare the exploits of the three teams to be promoted from England's second tier to those who remained in England's highest division. Therefore, should a team play any of these sides in their opening six fixtures - Arsenal, for example - the average rating will be taken from the remaining five opponents.
Using this method, it's Chelsea (6.96) who have the toughest start in the upcoming Premier League season. The Blues may open up against Burnley and Leicester, but face daunting trips to Everton (7.09 at home last term) and Manchester City (7.31) to round off their opening six games of the campaign. The Blues won just three of their first six matches last season, a period which included a loss away at Everton, so they will need to apply caution if they are to live up to the standards expected of them.
Chelsea netted just seven goals in their opening six games in the 2013/14 campaign, but the signing of Diego Costa - only Cristiano Ronaldo (31) and Lionel Messi (28) scored more goals in La Liga last season - shows that José Mourinho has moved to address the problems up front. Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Everton (each 6.95) quickly follow suit, with the trio all facing tough starts to the new campaign next month.
Villa kick off with a difficult trip to Stoke, but it's their September schedule that has Villans fretting. The Midlands side take on Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea and a poor start to the season will have supporters concerned for their top-flight safety. While Paul Lambert has brought in league-experienced trio Philippe Senderos, Joe Cole and Kieran Richardson to solidify the squad, the lack of top-tier quality is a cause for concern.
Elsewhere, Everton may start against Leicester, but face London duo Arsenal and Chelsea before the month is out, coupled with a Merseyside derby with Liverpool at the end of September. Roberto Martínez will be subject to plenty of focus in his second season at the Goodison Park helm and without the services of Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Lacina Traoré, some believe the Spaniard may struggle, though the permanent signing of Gareth Barry is a positive.
Crystal Palace are another hoping to impress next season, however a trip to the Emirates on the opening day will be tough to navigate. Nevertheless, with a full pre-season under Tony Pulis, bigger and better things are expected of the Eagles in the upcoming campaign.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Louis van Gaal has a comfortable start to life in England. Statistically speaking, Manchester United (6.72) have the easiest start to the new season, where they'll face Swansea City once more. The former champions romped to a 4-1 victory over the Swans in their opener last term and while the campaign did not pan out how fans would have liked, a meeting with the Welsh side at Old Trafford should alleviate fears of a poor start. United also face all 3 of the newly promoted teams over August and September and supporters have every right to be confident of a good beginning under Van Gaal, especially after Netherlands' performance at Brazil 2014.
Defending champions Manchester City and second placed Liverpool (both 6.92) will face one another in the second round of fixtures as both teams strive to improve this summer. The loss of Luis Suarez, though, will hinder Liverpool's chances of leapfrogging City into top spot next term, while City's home form could be enough to land an early blow to the Reds' title challenge. The Citizens had the best home rating (7.31) in the Premier League last season, however Liverpool had the highest rating away from home (7.08).
Of those with new managers at the helm, Tottenham (6.9) have the most difficult start, with Mauricio Pochettino hosting Liverpool (7.08) in his third game in charge before ending September with a trip across the capital for a North London derby with Arsenal (7.16). Former side Southampton (6.88) travel to Anfield on the opening day, with Saints' schedule slightly easier than Spurs', while West Brom (6.85) begin life under Alan Irvine with what may conspire to be an important match-up with Sunderland (6.72).
Finally, of the three promoted teams, Championship winners Leicester (6.89) have a tougher start than Burnley (6.84) and QPR (6.79). In fact, only United (6.72) and Hull (6.77) have an easier opening 6 fixtures than the latter. The upcoming campaign certainly has the potential to be one of the most enthralling in recent memory. Managerial changes, an influx of new stars, a league without its former top goalscorer - 2014/15 could be one of the most entertaining Premier League seasons yet.
Who do you think has the toughest start to the upcoming Premier League season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below
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