Nothing is certain in football. But with just a few days to go until the Premier League begins, it's hard not to look at the top, and at the clubs that are gearing up for an assault both on the four Champions League places and the big silver pretty thing itself, and think "Wow. That could get brutal."
There are five clubs who are gearing up for this forthcoming campaign with Champions League qualification as a minimum target. Four of them also have the title in their sights: Manchester City, the defending champions; Liverpool, last season's puckish upstarts; Chelsea, who are looking ominously well-reinforced; and Arsenal, who are now finally free of the need to sustain themselves on morally superior deference and can have a proper crack at actually winning the thing again.
English Premier League
Looking back at the 1934 Charity Shield
When Arsenal meet Manchester City in Sunday's Community Shield, it will only be the second time that the two teams have met in English football's showpiece friendly. Here's what happened in the first, way back in 1934.
English Premier League
Then there's Manchester United, last season's hilarious mess transformed by the loving touch of the Iron Tulip into this season's bubbly optimists. We know that the club thinks the Champions League is their rightful place; it's written into their bumper new contract with Adidas. Bouncing straight back to the title is probably a stretch, and certainly nobody's idea of a minimum expectation, but with no European football and a decent run of opening fixtures, it would be foolish to count them out completely. All of which makes things at the top look exceptionally crowded. Somebody's ending the season unhappy. Four into five won't go.
So what, then, of Everton and Tottenham Hotspur? Both sides occupy a peculiar liminal zone betwixt mid- and top-table, between the content-with-their-station teams and the big aristocratic bastards who hog all the attention. Not going to win the league, but not happy without inconveniencing those that might, both on the pitch over ninety minutes and, eventually and hopefully, in the league over 38 games as well. As ever, the magical fourth place dangles tantalisingly in the middle distance, freshly-minted euro notes dancing in the breeze.
Both sides could improve this season. For Spurs this might almost be a given; it would be hard to imagine a season quite so flat, uninspiring and weirdly non-existent as the one just passed at White Hart Lane. First the always-brittle Andre Villas-Boas laboured with a squad he patently didn't like, then Tim Sherwood laboured with a job he patently couldn't do. So while Mauricio Pochettino has a job on his hands to restore battered morale and reestablish some kind of footballing common sense, but not being either of his two immediate predecessors will help immensely. Last season nearly every Tottenham player underperformed to some degree; this season should see at the very least some reversion to the mean.
Over at Everton, meanwhile, they have the opposite problem: things went really well last season. The improvements that Roberto Martínez made over David Moyes in terms of results were admirable and tangible, but it was the imposition of a new style that really caught the eye and fired the optimism. Like Spurs, the squad hasn't changed too much over the summer; unlike Spurs, even that is refracted through Martínez's Feelgood Prism of Happiness. Romelu Lukaku: retained, at considerable cost, now properly an Everton player, and a sign that footballers who consider themselves really quite good are happy to come and be really quite good at Everton. Never has standing still felt so much like hurtling forward.
And as with Tottenham, logic suggests that Everton could improve again. If Lukaku and Ross Barkley can add consistency to their undoubted talent; if John Stones can smoothly inherit Sylvain Distin's place in defence; if Kevin Mirallas can maintain his form from last season; if Martínez's methods can continue to flourish and inspire ... a lot of ifs, yes, but all of them seem realistic. Maybe that's just Roberto's infectious smile and natty shoes doing their work. He really is a feelgood manager. And he has lovely, twinkly, avuncular eyes. How could any footballer not improve themselves for this man?
We've drifted. Let's focus. It's certainly possible — and maybe even probable — that both Everton and Tottenham's 2014/15 editions will be better to the previous season's offerings. Yet the forthcoming top-of-the-table bunfight might well mean that they end the season further away from fourth place than ever. This is a very bad season to be angling for the shiny European places: if five into four won't go, then six or seven looks even less comfortable.
But that, slightly paradoxically, might be a blessing for Martínez and Pochettino. It would take an owner both remarkably short of sight and remarkably itchy of trigger-finger to judge a sixth or seventh place this season as failure. There's too much else going on. There's only a certain amount of pressure to go round, and with the predicted top five taking most of it, things elsewhere can perhaps relax a touch.
This season, as long as the football's good and the curve's generally upward, that will surely do for both sides. Shifting the expectation from the bottom line to the workings out can only be beneficial. Brendan Rodgers says a lot of silly things, but one of the more sensible was his observation "the problem with being a manager is it's like trying to build an aircraft while it's flying". And though there's no such thing as a season off in the Premier League, but Tottenham and Everton have perhaps the closest thing to it: a season that will most likely be judged not on the bottom line but on all the background work.
As long as they don't fall out of the sky completely, this season will allow two talented young managers to establish themselves at two ambitious clubs, all the better for a more considered push in future. And if that relaxation of pressure in turn facilitates something surprising — like, say, a disruptive and convincing run at one of the Champions League places, perhaps at the expense of a still-sickly United or a post-Suárez Liverpool — then, well, clearly that was the plan all along.