Man United the fixture list winners; Arsenal fans beware at Christmas
The 2017-18 fixture list has been published and, after an absence of just three-and-a-half weeks, the Premier League is back in our lives. Though the dates and times will change when the TV companies make their diary requests, we can already see the basic shape of the coming season.
Of course it is silly to take one look at the itinerary and make sweeping judgements on a 38-game season, but there are some teams who will be very happy with their fixtures. There are others who will feel rather less fortunate.
Tottenham's last two Premier League campaigns have been compromised by slow starts (six points from 12 in 2016-17; three points from 12 in 2015-16) and they'll have to do very well to improve on that with this fixture list.
They will go to a packed, upbeat St James' Park on opening day to face Newcastle. The last time they went there, the Magpies won 5-1. Then Spurs host champions Chelsea seven days later. A home game the following week against Burnley may offer some respite, but then they have go to Everton. Ouch.
Spurs, remember, will be playing their home games at Wembley Stadium this season, a venue that provides them all the comfort of a haunted house in the Carpathian mountains on a particularly thundery night.
Champions Chelsea begin the defence of their title against Burnley, a match-up that the fans will be more than used to given that they also met in August in both 2016-17 and 2014-15. Then it's off to Tottenham, Everton at home and Leicester away, a tricky (but balanced) summer challenge that they should navigate without serious issues.
Arsenal will be reasonably pleased with their start. Leicester at home, Stoke away (no longer the intimidating fortress it once was), a tricky clash with Liverpool, and then a tussle with their ideological Mini-Me that are Bournemouth. It's a good opportunity for Arsene Wenger to build on that FA Cup goodwill.
Manchester City have a similarly acceptable summer. They open at new boys Brighton, then play Everton at home before their own trip to Bournemouth and then their own duel with Liverpool, where we can expect Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp to hug a lot and say nice things about each other.
Jose Mourinho and Manchester United are arguably the winners of the opening exchanges. Home games against West Ham and Leicester are the bread to his Swansea away sandwich. After a less than convincing debut Premier League campaign at Old Trafford, he should be able to reach September with maximum points.
Liverpool have at least half a great start: Watford away and Crystal Palace at home are great opportunities for early points; Arsenal at home and Manchester City away are less than ideal follow-ups.
But everyone has to play everyone, of course, so there's little point in grousing too much. The bits to look out for, beyond the start and the finish, are the choke points. This Christmas, in particular, looks brutal. Teams will play on the Dec. 23, the 26th, the 30th and then on Jan. 1 -- a gruelling run of four games in 10 days, subject to TV machinations.
That's a period that Arsenal will open with the visit of Liverpool and close with the visit of Chelsea. A chance for a big six points, or a trapdoor that will see them tumble out of contention? No other big six club have such a challenging winter run. Manchester City, by stark contrast, have Bournemouth, Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Watford. Even Pep won't be able to look fashionably exasperated at that.
But compensation for Arsenal arrives in the form of the run-in. If they are to challenge for the title (and that's an "if" as big as Per Mertesacker's pyjamas), they'll have two very agreeable games to close out the season: Burnley at home and Huddersfield away. Granted, a trip to Old Trafford precedes that, but so too does a visit from West Ham. They should be able to take at least nine points from that run. Will it prove crucial?
United will feel equally blessed in this department. They end at home to Watford after a trip to Brighton. Spurs will play Leicester at home after trip to the Hawthorns, while Manchester City have a difficult journey to Southampton after dealing with Huddersfield at the Etihad. So who loses out at the end? Champions Chelsea.
The fixture computer tends not to produce pivotal clashes on either the opening or the closing day and so the Blues' trip to St James' Park could be a considered a bit of a stinker. To make matters worse, they'll be playing Liverpool the weekend before at Stamford Bridge. Antonio Conte will hope that his work is done before then. The Reds, for their part, end with Brighton at home.
All of this, however, could be out-dated within weeks of the season's start. Remember last season, when we considered Tottenham's trip to Leicester on the final day to be potentially crucial? It was a non-event. Remember how we considered West Ham, who had just finished seventh, to be tricky opponents, not knowing that they were about to dip hard?
There is still so much to unfold, there is still so much to learn. But for today, nine weekends away from the start of the season, speculation will have to do.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.