Liverpool beat Manchester City on Monday morning to pull away eight points clear at the top of the Premier League table after 12 points. An unassailable lead, even this early in the season, some pundits are saying.
“They’re [Liverpool] in great form. I’m not a betting man, but I think it’s done,” former Manchester United captain Roy Keane said following the win. “If you’re in the Liverpool dressing room you’ll be thinking bring it on.”
Jose Mourinho agrees.
“From my position I think it’s done,” he added. “Unless something dramatic happens in terms of an injury that breaks the team, but I think the team is a complete puzzle. It’s adapted to the quality of the players.
“City are capable of winning seven, eight, nine matches in a row, but I don’t see how Liverpool can lose their advantage over them.”
Having now played every member of the traditional top six and beaten them (except for Manchester United, who held them to a draw), as well as every team currently in the top six, it is firmly Liverpool’s to lose.
After 12 games, however, you don’t have to go back too far through the Premier League archives to find another team with a lead of eight points.
Manchester City found themselves with the same comfortable advantage two years ago when Pep Guardiola’s team blew away the rest of the competition in the most dominant title win in Premier League history.
They famously score in injury time on the final day of the season to see themselves become the first team to amass 100 points in the league, losing just the once and finishing a huge 19 points ahead of eventual runners up Manchester United.
To find an advantage more significant than this at this point in the season however, you have to go back to the 1993/94 season, when there were 22 teams in the Premier League and each team therefore played 42 times.
Manchester United held a nine-point lead after 12 games (in what was only the second season of the Premier League) and went on to lift the trophy by eight points.
At this stage of the campaign, the average lead at the top of the table across all 27 and a third (nearly) seasons is just 3.3 points – less than half of Liverpool’s current advantage.
Interestingly however, only 12 of the teams leading the table after 12 games have actually gone on to be in the same position at the end of the season – four of those occasions have come in the last five seasons.
Liverpool themselves know all about that, having led at this point twice before, in 01/02 and 02/03 by three and four points respectively. Arsenal and Manchester United ended up winning the title by seven and five points come the end of those two seasons.
Eight points is significant, even at this stage, but leads like this and even greater have been lost before, and far later in the season as well.
Manchester United, for example, blew their eight-point lead over Manchester City in the 2011/12 season, with Sergio Aguero famously writing his name into Premier League history in the 94th minute of the final game of campaign.
“The federation assured me that it had a Plan B and a Plan C.
“In light of these considerations, the championship can resume on June 20.”
Italian football federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina told the minister during the video conference there would be a play-off system if the championship were again interrupted, while the existing standings would be used if it were stopped.
“We had a very useful meeting,” said Spadafora. “From the start, I said that football could restart once all the security conditions had been met.”
No top-flight matches in Italy have been played since Sassuolo beat Brescia 3-0 on March 9.
One of the hardest hit countries by the coronavirus pandemic with over 33,000 deaths, Italian football now faces a scheduling nightmare, for matches which will take place behind closed doors.
“I’m happy and satisfied,” said Gravina.
“The restart of football represents a message of hope for the whole country.”
Lega Serie A will meet on Friday morning to examine the different calendar hypotheses for the remaining Serie A and Italian Cup matches, amounting to 127 in total.
Most teams have 12 league games left to play, but there were four postponed fixtures.
Spadafora suggested that the Italian Cup could be concluded the week before the return to Serie A action.
The German championship has already resumed and Spain’s La Liga will return to the pitch the week of June 8.
Among the five major European championships, only the French Ligue 1 has been definitively stopped.
“Finally today we have a date and the certainty that the championship will resume, it is a further signal that Italy is starting again,” said Juventus captain Giorgio Chiellini.
“We can’t wait to get on the pitch and do what we love most, certain that we can give so many emotions to the millions of fans who were waiting.”
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But many issues remain to be resolved including match schedules, players’ contracts which end on June 30, and unpaid TV rights by broadcasters.
“Having a certain date is certainly a step forward, but problems remain and we hope to resolve them,” said Damiano Tommasi, president of the player’s union.
“Footballers are not robots, there are concerns,” the former Italy and Roman player said this week.
“A critical issue is (playing a) match at 4.30pm which in June and July in Italy is unthinkable.” The thorniest issue remains the two-week quarantine period in the case of a positive test, which Spadafora insisted would remain.
“The CTS agreed with the medical protocol, but confirmed the absolute necessity for a quarantine period if a player were to test positive,” said Spadafora, who did not exclude future changes to the rule.
“I’m ready to bet on the resumption of the championship, but with this rule of quarantine of 14 days, the possibilities of concluding it are not high,” said Enrico Castellacci, president of the Italian Football Doctors Association.
“It’s a crime. I’m not going to quarantine 50 healthy people. We don’t do this if there is a positive case in a factory,” argued Lazio doctor Ivo Pulcini, with the Roman club committed to a resumption of the season, as they sit just one point behind leaders Juventus.
The season will resume with the four teams who were waiting to play their games which were originally postponed for the League Cup final between Manchester City and Aston Villa, with the two teams taking on Arsenal and Sheffield United respectively on June 18 (AEDT).
There is only one certainty as the teams prepare for three weeks of contact training before the official return: Liverpool need two wins to finally be crowned champions.
Everything else is a lot more complicated however…
Well, no. Not officially, anyway. While speculation has been rife about if and when it is safe for a return to play, it now seems the Premier League has been working tirelessly behind the scenes with broadcasters and the 20 teams to ensure the season is completed, with all 92 games shown live for fans to watch – many of which are on free-to-air for the first time.
And then the Premier League’s decision still needs ratification from the government. If the government says no then the answer is officially no. But that is extremely unlikely at this point. Despite last week seeing four times more COVID-19 deaths in one day than Australia has had ever, the UK is beginning to lift more and more restrictions, with groups of up to six people allowed to now congregate outside. If the Premier League can prove it is being safe, it’s a no-brainer for a government so deeply unpopular to rubber stamp it and gain an easy PR win to distract from the uproar at its general atrocious handling of the pandemic.
Put simply, you can safely start setting those 2am alarms again in the knowledge than the Premier League will be back.
It is unclear whether it was a unanimous decision to return to play, with a lot of the relegation-threatened clubs coming out publicly against the move. West Ham, Norwich, Watford and Brighton were amongst the most vocal, although it is believed that Aston Villa and Bournemouth were also in favour of voiding the season – or at least relegation.
Rule changes in the Premier League are voted on by the 20 clubs, with a majority of 14 needed for a change to be made. So even if those six sides were against a return, theoretically, the motion could still be passed.
However, it is more likely that the Premier League agreed to appease these teams and allow them to play their home games at home, albeit with no crowds.
Original Premier League proposals looked at playing games at neutral venues – something those six sides were deeply against and used as their main argument against relegation being upheld. They said it simply wasn’t fair.
So it seems the Premier League, desperate to restart and recoup some of the money it has already lost, decided to call those sides’ bluff and say “okay, no neutral venues, let’s get on with it then”.
SO THERE WILL BE NO NEUTRAL VENUES ANYMORE THEN?
Nothing is confirmed but it appears there will be a few games still held at a neutral venue – including a massive one involving the champions-in-waiting, Liverpool.
Numerous reports from the UK are claiming that while police have informed the Premier League that they have no issues with the majority of matches being played at their original venues, they have raised concern about a number of high profile matches, including the north London derby between Tottenham and Arsenal… and Liverpool’s potential title-winning game, whenever it may come.
The main worry is that fans will congregate outside of the stadiums for these crucial games, increasing the spread of coronavirus by not adhering to social distancing rules and also putting a greater strain on the police force who would need to keep sets of fans separate.
Liverpool are 25 points clear of Manchester City with nine games remaining, although City have a game in hand against Arsenal, which will kick off the Premier League return. Should Arsenal win, Liverpool can secure the title with victory over Everton at Goodison Park in what is slated to be held on the first full weekend of fixtures. Should that happen, police will almost certainly insist the game is moved away from the city of Liverpool.
WHAT ABOUT THE PLAYERS REFUSING TO TRAIN?
There were a number of players not training with their clubs over fears of the spread of coronavirus, most notably Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, who has been given a training schedule to do from the safety of his own home.
These players were still training and doing largely the same activities that those who have returned to their respective training grounds have been doing, although it would have changed this week with contact training being reintroduced.
Chelsea were not forcing him, but Kante has now decided to return, given contact training will take place and a date has been formally announced.
Troy Deeney is another who originally refused to return given he has a young child at home, although after talks with the government’s deputy chief medical officer.
“The first conversation I had with him was maybe three weeks ago,” he said. “The last conversation we had was on Friday and he had so much more information, so much more detailed analysis.
“So it just filled me with confidence that he’s trying his best to make sure that we have all the information. The risk factor will be down to players.”
BUT WHAT HAPPENS IF SOMEONE GETS CORONAVIRUS?
Well, some players already do. There have been positive tests from players at Watford and Bournemouth so far as well as some staff from other clubs and they have been removed from training and told to isolate for seven days in accordance with medical guidance.
There is regular testing of everyone involved, so if any tests are returned positive, it will be known relatively quickly, so the risk of spreading is minimal, but it’s as Deeney says – the main risk will come from the players not adhering to the strict guidelines in place.
A worst-case scenario would be if a player contracts the disease and then plays a game, coming into contact with at least 21 other players, who would in turn come into contact with hundreds more.
A whole team having to isolate for seven days would put a huge strain on the already delicate fixture schedule, with a second Premier League shutdown likely to signal the end of the season.
WHAT’S LEFT TO PLAY FOR?
In short: Everything.
Liverpool may have the title pretty much sewn up but there is the battle for the Champions League spots between Leicester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Wolves, Sheffield United, Tottenham and Arsenal. Only eight point separates ninth from fourth and with such a hectic schedule predicted, anything could happen.
Then there is relegation. Six teams, again all separated by just eight points, five of whom are separated by just four points, with nine games remaining.
There is no news yet on when, or if, the Champions League and Europa League will return given the strict isolation periods for travelling to and from other countries. There is a chance that to get these competitions done before the new season, they will need to be played in a hub all at once. But that discussion is for a later date.
For now, we can just look forward to complaining about VAR again.