It would probably be unreasonable to demand that Manchester United win the league this season. But it would certainly not be unreasonable to demand that Manchester United, in their second season under Louis van Gaal and after spending the gross domestic product of a small country, to look like they could win the league this season.
This doesn't mean a few promising performances here and there that hint at there being a decent team in there somewhere; this means being properly in the mix come April and May. This doesn't mean walloping relegation candidates while getting suffocated by Chelsea or shredded by City; this means walloping relegation candidates and doing unto Chelsea and City as they would do unto you. Not sure why that went all biblical. Let's press on.
With all that in mind, then, here's a look at United's first two months of the season. Who they're playing, and what fans should be expecting from those games.
Slow starts used to be fine. So did slow middles, for that matter: in 1996-97, United were faffing around in sixth and seventh until the middle of December, before sorting themselves out and winning the title. Before the 2004-05 season, only two champions broke 90 points in a 20-team Premier League season, and both of those were odd seasons. There was Arsenal 2003-04, which was the year they didn't lose a game in the league, and there was United 1999-00, when everybody else was total rubbish.
Then Jose Mourinho turned up. Not only did he spend quite a lot of money, but he noticed that points earned in the first half of the season counted just as much as points earned in the second, and proceeded to manage Chelsea to a record-breaking 95 points. Since then, only one title has been won with fewer than 86, as the Premier League has streeeeeeeeeeeeeeetched. This process reached its logical conclusion last season, where Chelsea went to the top of table in August ... and stayed there. Slow starts used to be recoverable. Now they're for losers.
With all that in mind, United have been handed a pretty decent start to the league season. Three of their first seven games — Aston Villa away, 14 August; Newcastle at home, 22 August; Sunderland at home, 26 August — are games that any side with title aspirations need to be winning. Perhaps winning with a certain measure of contempt. Certainly winning with a minimum of fuss.
The other four games — Tottenham at home, 8 August; Swansea away, 30 August; Liverpool at home, 12 September; Southampton away, 20 September — are slightly more complicated. Each is very winnable for a good team in good form; each is very losable for a disorganised team in shaky form.
(By some strange/happy/totally irrelevant coincidence, all of these fixtures were quite significant last season. Tottenham at home was the first game in that late-season run of decent form that pushed United over the line; Swansea away, which came just before that game, was a loss, but a loss that came despite the early flickerings of a good performance; and Southampton away was a miserable performance that ended with a win thanks to the timely intervention of Robin van Persie. Liverpool at home, meanwhile, was both a hilarious exorcism of last season's thumping and very, very funny.)
The two home games first, then. United need to be winning them both, and not just because annoying Brendan Rodgers is compulsory. Yes, both Spurs and Liverpool have the potential to cause anybody problems, and yes, United's defence will likely invite those problems, but losing either would be a retrograde step from last season. Worse, it would be an early sign that United might end up spending their season scrapping not with those at the top of the table, but those in the Dear God Please Don't Condemn Us To The Europa League mezzanine. And that would not be welcome news.
As for the aways? Well, Swansea and Southampton should be decent opposition, assuming they haven't completely fallen to pieces over the summer. And away games are tricky things: the dressing room's the wrong shape, the showers are either too hot or too cold, and the food's funny. But still. Both winnable. So, win them both.
Of course, all the above is important, but not as important as the Champions League qualifiers (first leg 18/19 August, return leg 25/26). David Moyes lost his job because he lost United their seat at Europe's top table; Van Gaal was hired to get them back; and Van Gaal's first season was pronounced as a qualified success on the basis that he had got them back. Which means the team needs to actually get back.
Yes, a good start in the league is important. But victory in these two games is absolutely crucial. Should United progress — and we find out who they'll be playing on Friday — then the group stage starts up in mid-September. United will be in pot 2 for the draw, which will pit them against one European champion — could be Barcelona; could be PSV Eindhoven — as well as one team from somewhere in Eastern Europe and another from somewhere in Germany. Probably. More to the point, the first step of Louis van Gaal's rebuilding operation will be done.
If United don't get through the qualifiers, however, they'll go into the Europa League. The Europa League. And the mood at the club will get tense.
There's a League Cup game scheduled for 23 September. As long as United don't lose 4-0 to an abomination of a football club, that'll be fine.
All in all, United will want to be leaving September with two things secured. One, a place in the Champions League group stages. Two, as close to twenty-one league points as possible. The former is fairly self-explanatory; the latter is important not just because the process of winning the league starts on Saturday. It's also because October contains both Arsenal and Manchester City, and it would be nice to have a little bit of form and confidence tucked away.
You want precision? Fine. Good: 19 points, and a place in the Champions League proper. Bare minimum: 16 points, and ditto. Worrying: anything less, and ditto. Abject failure: anything less, and the Europa League.
Full schedule for the first two months (and one day):
08 Aug — Tottenham (H)
14 Aug — Villa (A)
18/19 Aug — CL qualifier 1st leg
22 Aug — Newcastle (H)
25/26 Aug — CL qualifier 2nd leg
30 Aug — Swansea (A)
INTERNATIONAL BREAK WOOHOO PARTY PARTY PARTY!!!
12 Sep — Liverpool (H)
15/16 Sep — CL group stage #1
17 Sep — Europa League group stage #1
20 Sep — Southampton (A)
23 Sep — League Cup
26 Sep — Sunderland (H)
29/30 — Sep CL group stage #2
1 Oct — Europa League group stage #2