KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- In normal times few fans, beyond the immediate ‘extended families’ of Aston Villa and Sheffield United, would be fixated on the clubs’ clash in Birmingham tonight.
But these are not normal times. Their kick off in an empty Villa Park will carry far greater significance than is usual for a run-of-the mill match. The world, denied Premier League rough-and-tumble for 100 days, will watch in curiosity and the UK will welcome a small step back towards normality.
Not everyone is happy to see football returning. Some health experts believe the wrong message is being sent out too soon while others, such as English police football unit head Andy Roberts, worry about fans congregating outside stadia.
But sooner or later the lockdown had to be eased and a consensus, from Prime Minister Boris Johnson on down, will be encouraged by the return of a happy distraction from devastation of a 41,000-plus COVID-19 death toll which is the highest after the United States and Brazil.
Some 92 games remain to be played as well as the closing rounds of the FA Cup, the remainder of the second division programme plus the lower division promotion play-offs.
Euro 2020 has been postponed but live football will be on television almost every day from now until mid-July.
Then time will just about allow UEFA’s Champions and Europa League wrap-ups before the kickoff to the 2020-21 season.
Oddly, much of the drama at both ends of the table could be resolved within the first couple of matchdays.
If Manchester City lose at home to Arsenal late tonight – and closed doors slashes ‘home advantage – Liverpool could become champions in their first game back at Everton on Sunday.
Before then Manchester United could effectively kill off Tottenham’s dreams of a Champions League slot by defeating them in North London on Friday.
In the lower reaches Watford, Brighton and West Ham United could glimpse survival with opening wins but Bournemouth would slip closer to relegation by losing to Crystal Palace as will Aston Villa even if they draw with Sheffield United because then will then surely lose to Chelsea.
If Liverpool win the title for the first time in 30 years next Sunday they would be earliest winners of the competition, based on games remaining. Then they could think about next season.
Former captain Jamie Carragher said: “The title is a formality. I don’t think there will be too much disappointment about the stadiums being empty. If I were Jürgen Klopp I would then start thinking about next season. There will be a quick turnaround and it would make sense to use the remaining games to prepare for the next campaign.
“He has the opportunity to give the likes of Naby Keïta, Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi more minutes. That would enable Liverpool to have their best 15 players in peak condition for next season, so they can start really quickly.”
Before then comes five weeks of intensive action for which the Football Association and Premier League have drawn heavily on the Bundesliga’s experience.
Between 250 and 300 people will be involved directly at each stadium on a matchday. Stadia will be split into red, amber and green zones. The most tightly-secured red zone will include the pitch, tunnel, technical areas and changing rooms and be limited to a maximum 105 people – players, coaches, medics, match officials and other essential staff.
Players are being tested twice a week and will undergo temperature checks before they leave for the ground in buses and/or planes configured for social distancing. Three or more changing rooms will be used with face masks only for medical staff on the bench and the fourth official (not for subs who should observe social distancing).
The five substitutes option will be used with nine subs on the bench.
Sterilised footballs will be placed every 20metres or so around the pitch in case the matchball is cleared into the stands. The referee will then direct a player to pick up one of the ‘reserve’ matchballs. Handshakes and spitting will be prohibited.
As for the media, a maximum of 25 written press journalists can attend each match – compared with an initial 10 in Germany and six in Spain – with separate amber zone entrances and temperature checks. Post-match press conferences will be undertaken via Zoom.
A one-minute silence will be observed before each match in tribute tovictims of the pandemic and players will wear a heart-shaped NHS patch on their shirts.
Also, for the first 12 matches players’ names will be replaced with a ‘Black Lives Matter’ label in support of the demonstrations which erupted worldwide after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.