Few sports tournaments have escaped the COVID-19 shutdown, and the Premier League, arguably the most popular domestic tournament in the world, bowed to the inevitable ten days ago, having seen a number of players test positive for the virus.
In the days since there has been a great deal of confusion, particularly on the potential date of any return. At the time of writing, the Premier League is suspended until April 30th, but over the weekend there were reports that the tournament may not resume until the start of June, and that teams will be expected to fit nine rounds of fixtures into six weeks, as well as their FA Cup and European tournament commitments. That date is far from certain, but it seems that the football authorities will be doing everything to ensure that the season is finished. So, what can we expect when it returns?
The easiest prediction to make is that, despite Liverpool’s poor form before the break, Jurgen Klopp’s side will secure the Premier League title, their first top flight success since 1990. Having dropped just two points in 27 Premier League fixtures, the Reds suffered a surprise 3-0 defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road in their penultimate game, before scraping a 2-1 win over Bournemouth on March 7. The first half of March also saw them knocked out of the Champions League and the FA Cup.
The end of the treble dream was a disappointment, but for Liverpool and their fans, the Premier League title remains the big prize and it is hard to see how they could let that slip. With nine games to go, they have 25-point lead over second-placed Manchester City. City have a game in hand, but if they were to overhaul the Reds, it would take a collapse of monumental proportions, and with City’s focus on the Champions League, such a turnaround seems implausible.
Liverpool have some tricky fixtures in their remaining nine, including games against City, Arsenal, Chelsea and another Merseyside derby. But fixtures against Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Aston Villa offer them plenty of opportunity to pick up the two wins they need.
But if the unexpected break is unlikely to prevent Liverpool claiming the title, there are likely to be other effects that are harder to predict. Football fans and punters betting on trends in brand new 2020 apps will be trying to assess what the enforced lay-off will mean for teams when they take the field again. Fitness will be the key, particularly if there is limited time for players to get up to speed before the fixtures resume, which could benefit those teams such as Palace, Watford and Burnley, which are coached by managers known for putting out well-organised physically strong sides.
The congested fixture list is also likely to be a problem. The postponement of Euro 2020 until next year has freed up the summer, and it is likely that there will also be a delayed start to the 2020/21 season, but playing nine rounds of fixtures in six weeks will be a challenge for most teams. And for those still in European or FA Cup competition, that congestion will be considerable. If Manchester City were to reach the Champions League and FA Cup finals, for example, that would leave them with 18 games still to play, while Manchester United and Chelsea are also still in both cup competitions.
The combination of a short run-in with a congested fixture list is sure to mean some clubs focusing their attention on one tournament, with City likely to prioritise the Champions League, United aiming for a top four Premier League finish, and Leicester City perhaps focusing on the FA Cup. But however, it pans out, football fans will just be hoping that they get to see some football action soon!