CLARE manager Davy Fitzgerald has predicted relegation trouble for his All-Ireland champions in this year's Allianz National Hurling League.
Fitzgerald believes that the Banner County will struggle in the competition following a winter of celebrations.
Clare beat Cork last year to preserve their top-flight status and Fitzgerald suspects that it could be another tough campaign for his side.
Kilkenny are the visitors to Cusack Park in Ennis this Sunday afternoon at 2.0 for their opening fixture of the new Division 1A campaign.
However, the Banner County's confidence levels took a hit last Friday evening when a team containing eight of the starters in last September's All-Ireland final replay victory over Cork suffered a 14-point defeat against Tipperary in the Waterford Crystal Cup final at the Gaelic Grounds.
Fitzgerald admitted that Clare "are a mile off the pace" as it stands and that he is anticipating a massive challenge from a Kilkenny side still smarting from a disappointing championship season in 2013.
"Kilkenny are training since November – like dogs," Fitzgerald said. "I know what's coming. I've told the Clare public for the last four or five weeks what's happening.
"All we will do is do the best we can. It's been a tough couple of months, we've had a tough schedule – but that goes with being the All-Ireland champions.
"But listen, I'd still rather be where we were last year than where any other team is at the moment.
"They can never take away that – All-Ireland champions. But we're a mile off the pace and we'll struggle to win games in the league.
"I think we will improve as the year goes on, we will get stronger, but I think we will struggle in the league."
Fitzgerald acknowledged that his Clare side struggled to cope with Tipperary in last Friday's showdown in Limerick as the Premier County racked up a massive tally of 4-22.
The Premier County laid down an early marker with a comprehensive win which was a contrast to last year's corresponding fixture between the counties, when Clare ran riot at Semple Stadium.
"It wasn't in the tank – the fight wasn't there as much as last year," Fitzgerald.
"We have a lot of work to do – an awful lot of work. But listen, we're in for a tough few months. We'll have to take on the chin what comes to us."