"Aiming for 17th place is wrong," said Southampton FC boss Nigel Adkins with the Saints taking on champions Manchester City FC in their first game of the new English season.
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A trip to the City of Manchester Stadium to face the champions is a baptism of fire for Nigel Adkins' Premier League new boys Southampton FC, but the Saints can take heart from Manchester City FC's success.
Last season's English title arrived at Eastlands 14 years after City became the first former European trophy winners to sink to England's third tier, and just as Kevin Keegan returned them to the top flight with back-to-back promotions, last term Adkins' side took a second successive step up to put a final end to a turbulent spell.
Southampton's 27-year stay in England's top division ended on the last day of the 2004/05 campaign. After that blow, their manager Harry Redknapp rejoined the Hampshire team's south-coast rivals Portsmouth FC, the club lost their star players and rugby union coach Sir Clive Woodward spent an ill-fated year as the Saints' performance director. A Premier League promotion play-off place in 2007 was a rare highlight before the Saints tumbled down to England's third division amid financial turmoil in 2009.
Investment had put Southampton on a firmer footing before Adkins seized the reins from Alan Pardew midway through 2010/11. He immediately guided his charges to the second flight, and then took runners-up spot last term thanks to the 31 goals of top-scoring Rickie Lambert, who was ably supported by a host of exciting youngsters, headed by academy graduate Adam Lallana.
Record signing Jay Rodriguez and Nathanial Clyne are the latest additions to Adkins' squad. "Not everyone was expecting us to do as well as we did in the Championship, but we were in the top two all season – on merit," the manager said. "Yes, we're going to the next level, but there's a stability here that should give us strength. You can't underestimate team spirit."
Adkins continued: "We have to go into the Premier League with the belief that we can be strong. Aiming for 17th place is wrong; if you just fall short, there is a consequence. Aim higher, and if you fall short of that you've done all right."
Sunday's opponents City face an arduous task to retain their crown. Manchester United FC want revenge after being denied last time out, while a wealth of attacking talent has bolstered London sides Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC. However, the Citizens – who defeated European champions Chelsea 3-2 in the Community Shield – have the wherewithal to clinch consecutive championships.
City's vastly superior financial resources mean that Southampton have little chance of matching them over the course of a season, yet this weekend's opener is a good measure of how far they and Adkins have come. "I don't think we'll be expected to win up there, so it's all to gain, isn't it?" said Adkins. "We'll go and be positive."