The Premier League returns to action on Wednesday, becoming the third major European league to restart the 2019-20 season after the Bundesliga and the Spanish La Liga. Now, whether you are happy or sad about that depends largely on where your team currently sits in the table.
Liverpool fans are delighted that the season is resuming as the Reds are 25 points clear at the top and look set to secure their first title in 30 years. But supporters of clubs embroiled in the relegation battle — who had hoped the season would be null and voided and therefore be saved from the dreaded drop — will be feeling rather anxious again.
Whether you like it or not, the EPL is back after a 100-day hiatus due to you know what (players and staff will be tested twice a week) but with several safety measures to be implemented to contain the spread of the virus, it will look significantly different to the game we know and love …
“Is this a library?” is a popular chant at every stadium, and ironically, all 20 arenas in the Premier League will sound a reading room as all remaining 92 fixtures of the season will be played behind closed doors. Stadiums will be limited to 300 people (players, coaches, staff, match officials, TV crews, journalists) in attendance, and movement will be strictly regimented. Only 105 people at a time will be permitted to enter the ‘red’ zone which covers the pitch, technical area, tunnel and changing rooms. Fans will have to watch the action on TV (they’re also being discouraged to gather outside grounds and if they had tickets for the match, they’ll be refunded). Broadcasters will likely be using pre-recorded crowd noises to generate atmosphere but without the ferocity of the crowd behind the players, home advantage will be lost and inevitably, teams with more quality will likely win ... But, players stripped of confidence will be free from the moans and groans of fans and might even rediscover a bit of form.
I’m looking at you, Michael Keane …
No goal celebrations
It would look a bit odd for players to race away towards empty stands to celebrate a goal but they’re not the brightest and so I expect a fair few to do so — but with social distance rules in place, they won’t be allowed to rejoice together. High-fives and hugs are a no-no and you can forget about pile-ons. All this might be hard for some; remember, Dedryck Boyata of Hertha Berlin grabbed teammate Marko Grujic by the face and planted a great big smacker on him … The Bundesliga star later said he was just giving him instructions … A+ for the excuse, Dedryck. I can see most EPL stars discovering the difficulties in navigating this new rule …
No ball boys
And no balls, girls. Instead, a system of replacement match-balls will be used, with sterilised balls placed on top of cones by the side of the pitch. It’s also worth noting that changing rooms will be used where possible but makeshift cabins may be set up to accommodate visiting teams and that means Liverpool could end up celebrating winning the Premier League in the car park at Goodison!
In order to help with the fitness level of players, Fifa has allowed the maximum use of five substitutes (up from three) from a total of nine named by each team for the remaining games this season. Good job there’ll be no fans in the grounds — these lads will need a place to sit. But the fact is this new rule will help the bigger teams since they possess deeper squads with more quality players to choose from. Anyway, I bet my shawarma that Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho will probably be the first to make five changes in one go …
What’s left to play for
Plenty. Liverpool are tantalisingly within reach of the title (they won it months ago …) but if Arsenal beat Manchester City on the 17th and then the Reds beat Everton in the derby, they’ll be crowned champions. If not, then they just need six points from their last nine games to make sure. If they don’t get over the line, it would be the biggest collapse of all time.
Champions League qualification
Manchester City could be banned from competing in the Champions League for two years for breaking Financial Fair Play rules (they have appealed and we await a decision) but if they are banned, it means whoever finishes in fifth place will take their spot in next season’s competition. At the moment, that means Manchester United (on 45 points) are looking good - but Wolves and Sheffield United are just two points behind them. They’ll both be doing their best to nip in for a chance to play alongside Europe’s elite. Further down in eighth are Tottenham — but they are just four points off fifth.
And Arsenal, in ninth, are just five points off and have a game in hand. Heck, even my Toffees down in 12th have an outside chance!
Arguably more interesting than the battle for European football next season is the fight for survival. Norwich are rock bottom with Aston Villa and Bournemouth making up the dreaded bottom three — but also in dire straits are Watford, West Ham and Brighton. Villa are in a terrible run of form (four successive defeats) while Norwich are the only team in the bottom three to win any of their last four games. Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth have lost seven of their last 10 but have some first-team players returning from injury which might give them a boost.
Leading the race for the Golden Boot is Leicester striker Jamie Vardy with 19 goals and if the Foxes’ talisman continues to find the net, he’ll become the oldest player to ever attain the honour. Breathing down his neck is Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who has 17. Liverpool’s Mohammad Salah and City’s Sergio Aguero both have 16 while Southampton’s Danny Ings with 15 is still also in contention. And remember, Harry Kane is back from injury for Spurs. He currently has 11 goals — will he mount a late challenge?
First games back
On Wednesday, relegation-haunted Villa will face high-flying Sheffield United. Villa may have Scottish midfielder John McGinn back from injury. He hasn’t played since fracturing his ankle in December while Sheffield could welcome back Enda Stevens, and Lys Mousset.
The second fixture on the same day is Manchester City vs Arsenal. City’s Leroy Sane is back in training and could make a return to first-team action soon. Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira was set to miss the rest of the season with a fractured ankle but is back in training now.