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The Premier League returns

The English Premier League restarts on 17 June as Liverpool look to lift title number 19

(from left) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal, Mohamed Salah of Liverpool and Kevin de Bruyne of Manchester City.
(from left) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal, Mohamed Salah of Liverpool and Kevin de Bruyne of Manchester City.

The English Premier League takes itself very seriously. Its truncated 2019-20 season resumes on 17 June, and the governing body, The Football Association (FA), has come up with a suitably grand name for it: “Project Restart". It will become the third major European league to restart the 2019-20 season, after the Bundesliga and the Spanish La Liga (which started on 11 June). Football in England is serious business, primarily because it’s the wealthiest and most popular league in world football.

But restarting anything, whether it’s a country’s economy or a football league, when the covid-19 pandemic is still raging needs more than a bit of faith that everything will go smoothly. Just like any sporting tournament in these times, the matches will be held behind closed doors, in stadiums devoid of fans. Five substitutions per game have been allowed instead of the usual three, and with elaborate social distancing norms in place, substitutes will sit apart from each other, with all players and staff being tested twice a week. Six “high risk" games will be played in neutral venues, away from high population clusters with big rates of infection. The German Bundesliga, which started on 16 May, has shown how it should be done. The return of a league that boasts of some the biggest stars in world football is a good thing. Sixteen teams in the division have nine games each left to play, while four—Arsenal, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Sheffield United—have 10. The plan is for these 92 games to be played every day until the league ends. So far, a fixture list has been announced for 32 games, up to 2 July.

The first match, on 17 June, is between relegation-threatened Aston Villa and high-flying Sheffield United, with the latter looking to end an extremely impressive season with a spot in next year’s Uefa Europa League. The second fixture that day, Manchester City vs Arsenal, is an intriguing one. If defending champions City lose to Arsenal, and league leaders Liverpool win the Merseyside derby against Everton on 21 June, Liverpool will be crowned champions with eight games to spare. It will be mathematically impossible for City to catch up with Liverpool even if the latter lose all their subsequent games.

Not that Liverpool are likely to do so. The Reds will almost certainly be lifting the league trophy for the first time after an agonizing 30-year wait. Nobody at the club, certainly not its long-suffering fans, could have imagined that the title drought would end in such bizarre circumstances. But a 19th championship, and the first in the Premier League era, would be consolation enough, even though there will not be any open-top bus parade to celebrate the historic occasion. Jürgen Klopp’s lethal and stylish team, the current European and club world champions, will then complete a historic treble.

Liverpool are also seeking to set a new points record. Manchester City are the current holders of that particular record with the 100 points they amassed in the 2017-18 season. Liverpool will equal it with six wins and amass an incredible 109 points if they win each of their remaining nine games. That should be motivation enough to end the season on a high.

City and an incredible Leicester side are on course to maintain their current league positions of two and three, though theoretically, both Chelsea and Manchester United, who are at No.4 and 5, respectively, could catch up. United are actually in an interesting place. Galvanized by the January signing of the excellent Bruno Fernandes, the Red Devils will also have midfielder Paul Pogba and striker Marcus Rashford, back from injuries. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær has a great squad to call on right now. If he can get the team shape and tactics right, United can end the season better than seemed possible in March. Chelsea, on the other hand, are poised to sign German sensation Timo Werner, which will give them a lift.

Even without the passionate support and voluble fans that the league is so famous for, there are plenty of interesting subplots and potentially amazing football to keep viewers hooked to “Project Restart". It’s great to have football back.

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