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Dublin: 3°C Thursday 26 November 2020

5 key questions ahead of the Premier League's re-start

England’s top flight is set to recommence on 17 June.

The Premier League title (file pic).
The Premier League title (file pic).
Image: Martin Rickett

1. How safe will the players be?

THE MOST controversial and talked-about aspect of the Premier League’s return has inevitably focused on player safety.

Naturally, not everyone has been entirely comfortable going back to work.

Newcastle’s Danny Rose recently claimed footballers were being treated like “lab rats”.

Watford’s Troy Deeney was also among the players expressing a degree of reluctance to return, outlining his personal reasons — including concerns over his young son and unanswered issues around BAME players (per the BBC, according to the Office for National Statistics, black men and women are nearly twice as likely die from coronavirus as white people in England and Wales).

Just last month, The Guardian reported that there were “robust exchanges” during a two-hour meeting between 20 club captains, Premier League officials and the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan van Tam.

For now though, it appears much of the scepticism has abated, and the English top flight will resume this week without too many protests on the grounds of health concerns. 

Even seemingly one of the most staunch resistors initially — Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, whose brother died of a heart attack in 2018 and who once fainted during a club training session — recently felt safe enough to return to individual training.

A Norwich player was one of two people to test positive for coronavirus among 1,200 checks across the Premier League on Thursday and Friday, and the individuals in question must now self-isolate for seven days.

The return to action in Spain and Germany so far has gone relatively smoothly, and there is no significant indication as of yet that the Premier League will be any different.

2. What impact will the lack of a crowd have?

With the remainder of the season set to be played behind closed doors, Premier League fans are preparing themselves for a fairly unique viewing experience over the coming months.

As strange as it will seem to be watching matches in empty stadiums on a regular basis, some measures are being taken to give games a more familiar feel.

For instance, as explained in greater detail here, Sky Sports are giving fans the chance to incorporate crowd noise into their viewing experience.

A statement from the broadcaster read: “In partnership with EA SPORTS FIFA, Sky Sports has created a range of bespoke and team-specific crowd noises and chants to bring the vibrant atmosphere of the Premier League to the restart.

“Viewers can choose between the added crowd sound or stadium noise, along with Sky Sports commentary.”
While this initiative emulates a similar, well-received plan in German football, other ideas from abroad such as South Korean club FC Seoul’s use of sex dolls to fill empty stadiums are less likely to be replicated.
Just how much influence the new normal has on factors like ‘home advantage’ and whether away sides approach games differently from how they usually operate will be interesting to see.

sport-coronavirus-june-13 The King Power Stadium, home of Leicester City Football Club, is ring fenced off ahead of the restart of the Premier League season behind closed doors due to the spread of the coronavirus. Source: PA

3. Who will prevail in the relegation battle and Champions League race?

Firstly, the Champions League battle should come with a caveat noting Man City’s less-than-clear-cut circumstances.

Pep Guardiola’s side have been handed a two-season European ban, though they may avoid that scenario, if their appeal is successful.

They won’t discover their fate until July, and so at the moment, their rivals will be determined to secure a top-four spot and thus ensure European football regardless of City’s situation.

With the season approaching its climax, there are a number of teams still in contention.

City look nearly certain to land a top-three spot, given that they are currently nine points ahead of fourth-place Chelsea with a game in hand. 

Leicester are also in a strong position — they currently sit third, five points ahead of Frank Lampard’s men with nine remaining games for both teams.

Below that, there are just eight points separating fourth from Arsenal, in ninth.

In between, Man United, Wolves, Sheffield United and Tottenham (who now have Harry Kane and Son Heung-min back from injury) will all still be retaining hope of ending the season with a flourish.

Down the other end of the table, Norwich will need a minor miracle to survive, as they sit six points from safety.

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There is just four points between Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham and Brighton, and so none of those teams will feel secure.

Barring a disastrous end to the season though, Southampton and Newcastle, on 34 and 35 points respectively, should be playing top-flight football next season.

4. How will players’ fitness levels be impacted?

The impact of match fitness on how the season pans out should not be underestimated.

Of course, you would expect every player to be relatively well prepared for the coming weeks, but this is an unprecedented scenario.

Footballers have gone three months without a competitive fixture — a longer timespan than a normal summer break — and have had to cope with limited training for much of that period.

Some players will naturally get full fitness and match sharpness back more quickly than others.

And how they cope with the hectic schedule will also be interesting. Several people in the medical profession have suggested returning footballers could be especially prone to injury amid the rush to resume playing.

Moreover, the 2011 NFL lockout, when players were prevented from playing and training for an extensive period, resulted in a significant increase in achilles injuries.

A study in The Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy at the time noted: “A minimum of six to eight weeks of training appeared necessary for induction of positive changes toward enhanced injury prevention profiles.”

One measure to partially alleviate these concerns has been the introduction of the five-substitutes rule, but even that idea has drawn criticism.

Sheffield United’s Chris Basham suggested in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live that the ruling would favour bigger teams with deeper squads to draw upon.

5. When will Liverpool win the title?

Liverpool currently sit 25 points ahead of second-place Man City.

For some time now, the season being declared null and void seemed the only way the Reds would be denied a first title since 1990.

Yet the campaign’s re-start means it appears to be a matter of when, rather than if, Liverpool triumph.

They could be confirmed as champions as soon as 21 June, when they face Everton, although that outcome is reliant on Arsenal defeating Man City on Wednesday.

Should City avoid a loss in their first game back, however, then Jurgen Klopp’s men will have to wait slightly longer to secure glory.

What’s clear is that six points will guarantee the Anfield club the league regardless of what happens with rivals’ matches.

24 June against Crystal Palace is consequently another potential occasion when the team could end their long wait for the title.

In total, Liverpool have nine games remaining, so they can easily afford a couple of slip-ups, as unlikely as that may be, given that they have incredibly won 27 of a possible 29 league fixtures thus far.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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