At the end of the first round of group games of the UEFA Champions League on 21 October, the key takeaways didn't necessarily have much to do with the quality of the games. As usual, covid-19 dominated the proceedings, from empty, sepulchral stadiums to pandemic-enforced rule changes like five substitutions per game. The other talking point was injuries.
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp substituted the entirety of the club's fearsome forward line during the 1-0 victory over Ajax Amsterdam, as Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané all came off at the hour mark. TV cameras immediately showed Mané sitting with an ice-pack on his right knee. Klopp said after the game that Mané has been carrying a dead leg and ices his knee when he isn't training or playing.
Even the Liverpool's matchday squad had a makeshift look to it, again, thanks to injuries. Talismanic defender Virgil van Dijk is out for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury after a horror tackle by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford last week. Midfielder Fabinho filled in as centre-back to great distinction, but he was being played out of position because not only is van Dijk out, so is the other defender Joël Matip, who had just returned from an injury before getting injured again during the Everton game. As a wry Klopp said after the game, "The medical department pretty much made the line-up."
Also out through injury is the club's new recruit Thiago Alcântara. Thiago had just returned for the Everton game after recovering from covid-19 and was short on match fitness before another terrible tackle had laid him low. Goalkeeper Alisson is out injured for the next few weeks. These are all first choice players who have been instrumental in helping Liverpool win the Champions League, the World Club Cup and the Premier League in the past two seasons. No wonder Klopp substituted his influential forwards, especially with a Premier League game looming on Saturday, 24 October.
Similarly, Manchester City, a club that hopes to challenge for the Premier League and the Champions League this season, is also full of the walking wounded. Veteran midfielder Fernandinho pulled up injured late into the club's Champions League game against Porto on 21 October. He is now out for 4-6 weeks.
City were already missing key midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, defender Aymeric Laporte and striker Gabriel Jesus. Midfielder Ilkay Gündogan, who scored in the match, is himself short of match fitness. He too had contracted covid-19 and still not fully fit.
“If I’m honest, we are struggling a little bit with injuries and to lose Fernandinho towards the end of the game is another blow,” Gündogan told BT Sport. “There are others, of course, plus some who have just come back and I myself am not fully there yet after having covid-19," he added.
Both City and Liverpool are emblematic of fitness troubles that are plaguing pretty much every club. Once football restarted in the summer following pandemic lockdowns so that the 2019-20 season could be completed, the games came thick and fast. A short pre-season break was all the players got before the new season started. As a result most clubs have not been able to get players up to the required levels of fitness. The intense nature of the modern game, in addition to the fact that teams are playing multiple matches every week across several competitions, means that every player is just a tackle or a mistimed jump away from injury.
This is a trend that's set to continue across the rest of the season, as footballers turn out for club and country in a never-ending cycle of matches. This has also put a strain on effective tactical play and even the top teams are struggling. Expect to see more results like Liverpool getting hammered 7-2 by Aston Villa, City losing 5-2 to Leicester or German and European champions Bayern Munich being thumped 4-1 by Hoffenheim. Just like in every other walk of life, covid-19 has ensured that in football, too, all bets are off.