Premier League restarts, 100 days later
The English Premier League resumed on Wednesday night after 100 days of Covid-19-enforced hiatus to complete the 2019/20 season, which seemed nearly impossible six weeks ago.
Liverpool’s agonising 30-year wait for a 19th English league title has been the result of many things – bad luck to sloppy play – since they claimed the 1990 first division title (the Premier League began two years later). But even by the painful standards of the past three decades, not winning the 2020 title would have been beyond cruel for the Merseysiders.
Liverpool were 25 points clear at the top of the Premier League when the season was suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They needed just six more points from their remaining nine games to mathematically secure the title. In March, the Reds’ claim to winning the title had been conceded by all their rivals. Then the coronavirus came.
Jurgen Klopp’s team now have the chance to finish a project the club started four years ago when Liverpool employed the German manager who previously had massive success at Borussia Dortmund.
When Klopp faced the media for the first time upon his arrival in England in late 2015, he said he was clear in his vision, but that it could take up to four years to deliver silverware. On cue, Liverpool won the 2019 Champions League with a 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the final in Madrid.
And in his fourth full season as manager, the club is on course to win one fans crave the most – the English Premier League. Nothing is a given, though. A second surge of coronavirus could lead to the complete suspension of the league. That seems unlikely at this moment, but 100 days ago, the state of the world we live in seemed unlikely too.
Klopp’s team’s best bet would be claiming those six points in their first two post-Covid-19 outings – against Merseyside rivals Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday and Crystal Palace at Anfield next Wednesday.
There are many ifs though. Even if Liverpool earn the required six points and the season is called off again due to a new surge of the coronavirus, it will then become a boardroom decision. Most wouldn’t begrudge Liverpool the title if they have earned enough points, but the standings in the Premier League are not just about the identity of the winners.
If the season is called off, which three teams would be relegated, assuming four or five teams could mathematically fall to the second-tier Championship? And the race for Champions League places (which go to the top four teams in the league) also might not be settled.
All the teams and players can do though, is play and hope for the best. In a vastly changed world, does it matter if the Premier League has a winner or not? Still, it’s the most popular sports league in the world and the richest football league. It provides entertainment and hope and as we have seen in the past week through the actions of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, the platform for real social influence.
Rashford has been campaigning for free meals to needy children during the United Kingdom’s lengthy summer school holidays. Boris Johnson’s government was not interested until the 22-year-old Rashford raised awareness of the issue with an impassioned open letter.
It struck a chord, not only with opposition parties, but Conservative Party backbenchers who threatened an internal revolt if the Prime Minister didn’t free the funds. Johnson’s cabinet on Tuesday approved a massive £120-million (R2.5-billion) “Covid-19 summer food fund” for 1.3 million pupils in England. Rashford has done an extraordinary thing through his own talent and hard work, but born on a showcase provided by the Premier League’s bright stage.
Rashford will be one of the hundreds of players returning to empty stadiums to the job they love over the next four days. The Premier League is hoping to complete 92 matches in six weeks.
Canned crowd sound, superimposed figures in the stands, social distancing, no hugging and spitting are just some of the changes viewers can expect. It’s the same game, the same stakes and same actors, but presented in an entirely different way.
“It will be obviously, for some reasons, completely different, but you can still make it really special,” Klopp told fans on Liverpool’s website this week. “When we all became aware of the problem we will have, all together, the whole world, that was the moment we realised football is not as important as the night before when we played Atletico Madrid (Liverpool’s last game before lockdown).
“I think that’s a good lesson to learn. We had to show responsibility and we showed it. There were times when we didn’t know if we would play again and there were rumours about null and void and points-per-game.
“Now, we stand here and the league will start again because we behaved responsibly. We did the things we had to do because we wanted to save our loved ones and all the others as well. So, the league starts again and we can go for our massive target again and for this we need you, we always needed you.
“It’s still football and it’s still for you. We will be in the stadium and you will be at home. I can promise you we will feel your support, I will make the boys feel your support. You are still the 80 or 90% of the petrol in our tanks. Stay safe, support us from home. We are still with you and you’ll never walk alone.”
Aston Villa drew with Sheffield United in the first match on Wednesday night followed by Manchester City’s 3:0 win against Arsenal. Friday sees two more games including Tottenham against Manchester United, who were undefeated for nearly three months before lockdown.
There are seven more games at the weekend to ensure that football lovers all over the world will have a chance to see their favourite teams and players now that the Premier League is joining Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga in restarting. DM