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Football feast after months of virus enforced drought

Football feast after months of virus enforced drought

FOOTBALL: The Premier League returns to action today (June 17) after a 100-day COVID-19 enforced lay off and will now cram 92 games into six weeks of breathless action.

By Ben Tirebuck

Wednesday 17 June 2020, 11:00AM

Liverpool are on the verge of the Premier League title and have their sights set on eclipsing several records. Photo: AFP

Liverpool are on the verge of the Premier League title and have their sights set on eclipsing several records. Photo: AFP

There is still much to be resolved within that tight time-frame and the only one certainty as play resumes is that Liverpool will be crowned champions before too long. The rest is all to play for.

The period of inactivity from the last match played between Leicester and Aston Villa on March 10 to this evening’s “curtain re-raiser” between Villa again and Sheffield United is longer than the usual pre-season. In effect, it is like a new mini-season starting all over again.

Consequently, it is very difficult to gauge any notion of form as teams kick start the season again. Teams that were in a rich vein of form before the interruption such as Arsenal, Manchester United, Burnley and Sheffield United may well return and find they have lost their mojo.

Likewise, teams at the bottom such as Norwich, West Ham, and Villa, who were all on a wretched run, could well return refreshed and reinvigorated for the challenge ahead. Only time will tell but the form guide, effectively, starts from scratch. The break will have been a blessing for some, a curse for others.

Champions elect

Liverpool are on the brink of securing their first Premier League title with their 25-point lead over second-placed Manchester City the largest lead of any team in top-flight history. That is also the same number of points former manager Roy Hodgson amassed during his tenure at the club between 2010-11.

The Reds have several records in their sights. They could trump Manchester City’s 100-point record haul from a few years ago and also become the first team to win the league title in eight different decades. Thus far they have won every league game at Anfield, something that if maintained would see them become the first team to win all their home top-flight games since Sunderland in 1891/92.

Manchester City should secure the runners up spot although their focus is more on contesting the two-year Champions League ban UEFA handed to them before the suspension of play. The verdict is expected in mid-July and could have significant consequences to their future, depending on the outcome.

Should the ban be upheld it would mean the team finishing fifth would qualify for Champions League action next season. Leicester, despite experiencing a mini-blip prior to the enforced break, will be confident of holding onto third spot meaning a dog-fight between the teams currently placed fourth through ninth.

Chelsea has a strong squad and will be confident of grabbing a fourth-place finish. Tottenham will benefit from having star strikers Harry Kane and Son Heung-min return from injuries that threatened to curtail their season prior to the break. The hiatus also afforded manager Jose Mourinho a kind of pre-season that he had previously been bemoaning.

Manchester United also benefited from the suspension in play as injured stars Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba received time to recuperate.

Rashford is developing into a fine and consistent talent, an invaluable attacking asset to club and country. He also, rightfully, won plaudits and admiration for his off-field conduct during the COVID lockdown, displaying a maturity belying his tender years

It will be interesting to see how or if Pogba is accommodated and whether his inclusion will disrupt the impressive rhythm and impact January signing Bruno Fernandes was having pre-break. If United can get both midfield dynamos to click and gel then they will possess a potentially devastating midfield unit, which will set them up handsomely for the immediate future.

Arsenal showed definite signs of improvement under Mikel Arteta’s tutorship prior to him becoming the first casualty of the coronavirus in the Premier League and remain the only unbeaten top-flight team this calendar year. Arteta will be hoping the extra time afforded on the training field will allow his team’s progress to continue, particularly as their first match back pits him against former tutor Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. Arteta was once the pupil but it remains to be seen whether he will become the master. A victory against his former boss would be a significant feather in his cap.

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Hungry Wolves and sharp Blades

Surprise packages Wolves and Sheffield United make up the chasing pack and will be keen to reignite the fine form both displayed prior to the break and, indeed, all season. The former are resilient and hugely entertaining going forward, giving anyone a run for their money and possess an innovative and dynamic coach in Nuno Espirito Santo.

The Blades have been an absolute revelation. Most people’s tip for the drop before a ball had even been kicked, they have surprised everyone. Arguably even more surprising is the manner in which they have played the game, receiving warm plaudits and respect from the likes of Guardiola and Klopp for their progressive style, always easy on the eye.

Charismatic boss Chris Wilder is constantly demanding more from his troops and it will be interesting to see how they resume play, especially as they face a challenging run-in. They are Villa’s opposition this evening as the campaign resumes and Wilder is acutely aware the eyes of the world will be on them.

"First game back is going to be a little bit different, what we understand is the magnitude of the game, the coverage of the game," Wilder said at his pre-match video press conference on Monday.

"From our point of view we want to put on a good show and make sure we play well," he added.

His opponents this evening will be hoping for something similar.

At the bottom, it is equally close with Villa, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham, and Brighton all nervously glancing over their shoulder at the relegation trap door.

It seems Norwich are doomed although, again, the form book is a blank canvas so they could make a resurgence. Any team could and it is extremely difficult to predict anything until we witness how the enforced break has possibly affected them.

Old game in a new era

There will be an eerie silence at all grounds as spectators are not permitted as one of the strict health protocols in place. Crowd chants may be piped into stadiums, cardboard cut-outs of supporters and live video fan walls will add colour but it will be almost impossible to mimic the usual vibrant atmosphere.

However, many critics have long bemoaned the erosion of atmosphere at many Premier League grounds courtesy of the ever-growing corporate “prawn-sandwich” brigade and the increase in football tourism so maybe it will be par for the course for some!

Widespread disinfection of changing facilities, dugouts, matchballs, goalposts, corner flags and substitution boards will be commonplace and people other than players and coaching staff on team benches must wear face masks. Players have been urged to maintain social-distancing during goal celebrations and encouraged not to spit.

As we usher in this new era for the game there are a lot of uncertainties although one thing is guaranteed: after being starved of action and drama for so long, football enthusiasts will revel in the football feast that awaits them in the coming weeks.

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