So here we are then, after a hiatus of just over three (very long!) months, assuming nothing goes dramatically wrong between now and 6pm this evening when Aston Villa are due to get the Premier League back underway with their clash with Sheffield United, English football is back. It will still be football but based on my close scrutiny of the Bundesliga in Germany and La Liga in Spain, it may take a bit of getting used to.
First and foremost, we are all going to have to remind ourselves where we left off. Almost inevitably Liverpool will win the title, their 25-point lead at the top, albeit having played a game more than defending champions Manchester City, means the only thing to be decided is where and when they will clinch it. The not-so-smart money might suggest that if Arsenal beat Manchester City in this evening’s second game (stop laughing at the back!), then it could be as early as Sunday against local rivals Everton.
If the destination of the title is all but a foregone conclusion then the battle for the European places remains tightly poised. Leicester had been enjoying their second best season ever and will be looking to cement their second qualification for the Champions League, assuming of course there is a Champions League to qualify for, however there is some work for Brendan Rodgers’ charges to do with their lead over fourth-placed Chelsea currently 5 points.
Of course, with Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) due to announce its decision on Manchester City’s appeal against their two-year European ban in the first half of July, it could well be that qualification stretches down to fifth-placed. In which case a fascinating battle looks to be in store between two members of the “Big Six” and two surprising interlopers. As things stand Chelsea and Manchester United look to be in the better position: the Blues in fourth lead Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side by 3 points, than this season’s somewhat surprising challengers Wolves and Sheffield United who sit a further 2 points behind although of course Chris Wilder’s men have a game in hand. With Sheffield United travelling to Old Trafford in a week’s time and then hosting Wolves a fortnight later all involved will need to hit the ground running right from the off.
In many ways, a big part of me really wants either Wolves or Sheffield United (or even both) to do it if only to shake the old order up, having three of the four Champions League qualifiers from outside the “Big Six” might contribute to resetting football and improving the competitive balance. Here’s hoping anyway.
Hovering just below that the two North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham will need to establish some momentum and claw back gaps of 8 and 7 points to Chelsea if they are to have realistic aspirations for overtaking Wolves and Sheffield United and qualifying for the Champions League gravy train. For the latter having Son Heung-min and, perhaps even more crucially, Harry Kane back after injury should give them an unexpected boost.
As for Arsenal, the focus according to Mikel Arteta is to go all out for European qualification and more specifically getting back into the Champions League from which they have been absent for three seasons. However if that starts to become unrealistic might they be better served to treat this run of matches in quick succession as more of a development phase in which the still new boss can look to develop his squad ahead of next season and for the future? How things go for the Gunners will no doubt have a huge influence on whether they can convince top goal-scorer and skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to sign a new deal.
At the lower end of the table it has been rumoured/ reported that the bottom six were very much in favour of cancelling the season and escaping relegation, self-preservation having been the motive for all clubs across England’s leagues in considering whether to try to restart or not. Norwich City, adrift at the bottom by 4 points, look to have a big challenge on their hands to stay in the top flight, but with just 4 points separating Brighton in fifteenth and Aston Villa in nineteenth the scrap to avoid relegation will no doubt have a number of twists and turns in store.
Of course the experience of watching football in the “new normal” (TM anyone who has spoken about the future over the last 3 months) is going to be different, with no fans allowed in the grounds and no pubs as yet open, we will all be watching it from the comfort of our own homes. The domestic broadcasters have confirmed that we will have the option of team-specific crowd noise and video chats to try and add some element of atmosphere while watching.
As someone who was initially (highly) sceptical ahead of sampling it in the Bundesliga I have to now say that the crowd noise works to an extent and I am even getting used to the projected fans used in La Liga’s coverage. Although that might lend a slightly surreal atmosphere to watching Arsenal play at the Emirates for us Gooners, perhaps they might consider piping in a general feeling of disgruntlement bordering on apathy. With the games coming thick and fast between now and the projected end date of the 26th of July it is going to be like having a summer tournament to watch and follow in the absence of the Euros.
While it is absolutely right that we should be looking forward to the return of the Premier League and of course the Championship a step below it, it is also appropriate to reflect on the decision to call Leagues One and Two to a halt. While it was confirmed that those in the promotion spots would go up and the Play-Offs would be played out as mini-competitions, most cruelly it doomed my hometown team Tranmere Rovers to relegation and also saw Peterborough denied a Play-Off place on the basis of the Points-Per-Game system adopted, both by incredibly slim margins.
Clubs in the lower divisions obviously don’t have the benefit of the TV deals enjoyed by those higher up and are therefore heavily reliant on matchday revenue, so the agreement that the Leagues couldn’t be played out is completely understandable. However, if the competitions are declared null and void then promotion and relegation perhaps shouldn’t have even been considered.
In Tranmere’s case in particular they were three points away from safety, had just won three matches in succession and were due to play fellow relegation candidates AFC Wimbledon, Rochdale and MK Dons in their next few matches. They had a fighting chance to say the least. Instead enforced relegation has seen the club forced to make redundancies and facing significant further financial losses on top of those from the pandemic. Owner Mark Palios has suggested that (rightly) the club are considering legal action stating: “We have been very clear that we regard the vote as unfair, unjust and an entirely unnecessary infliction of damage on our club when we are already grappling with the impact of a global pandemic.” I realise I am biased here but it is hard for any true-minded football fan to disagree.
Of course, there are still major concerns for clubs in all divisions, including those in the Premier League, going forward if for the foreseeable future fans will continue to be prevented from attending matches and the resultant financial implications. However, football is our shared great escape from reality and all we can do for now is to do our very best to enjoy the return of football even if it isn’t quite how we remember it.