There may be no faans in the stands but they can still enjoy the virtual experience.
There may be no faans in the stands but they can still enjoy the virtual experience.

Reunion, dogfights, title runs: Why EPL return has it all

The Premier League returns to action on Thursday morning (EST) following a three-month Covid-19 hiatus when Manchester City host Arsenal and Aston Villa take on Sheffield United.


Both matches have major implications at opposite ends of the table with City needing a win to keep runaway league leaders Liverpool waiting at least another week to win a first title in 30 years.


However, victory for Mikel Arteta's Gunners would see Jurgen Klopp's side require victory at bitter rivals Everton on Monday morning (EST) to win the league.


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Villa, who lie second-bottom, despite spending $259 million following their promotion from the Championship, must beat Sheffield United to move out of the relegation zone.


The Blades, who also went up last season, are the surprise package of the 2019/20 campaign, sitting in seventh and boasting the second best away record in the division behind Liverpool.


Arteta returns to the Etihad Stadium for the first time since he left his role as assistant coach to Pep Guardiola earlier this season to take the Arsenal job.


Guardiola revealed this week he had spoken to his close friend recently and intends to share a glass of wine with Arteta, whose positive coronavirus test in March led to the season being brought to a temporary halt.


"I'm excited for the fact to see him again - one of the nicest people I have ever met," said Guardiola, who lost his mother to the virus in April.


"It was a joy for me, I think for all of us to work with him. The feeling I have is he is happy there and doing an incredible job, so (I am) looking forward to seeing him tomorrow.


"We sent a message one hour and a half ago, it was about the wine we are going to drink after the game, if the social distance allows us to drink it."


Guardiola admits he's worried players risk injury by returning after an "incredible lack of preparation" and has no idea what to expect from the game.


The top-two tiers of English football are resuming play after as little as three weeks of contact training following the lockdown.


"It is not like in Germany or Spain who had five or six weeks to prepare," he said.


"You can play a game after three weeks of holidays but we were two weeks of holidays lying on the sofa, and that is why I think the players are not fully fit.


"But we have to start and finish the season so the damage economically to all the clubs can be reduced as much as possible."


The full program returns from Saturday morning (EST) with matches played also being played on Sunday and Monday.



Socceroos shock on eve of resumption



Socceroos star Jackson Irvine has left Hull City, less than a week before the restart of the English Championship season.


Irvine is one of four out-of-contract players who have failed to agree short-term extensions that would enable them to feature in the final nine games of the campaign for the relegation-haunted Tigers.


The 27-year-old is one of Hull's most consistent performers and has played 112 games for the club since joining from Burton Albion in 2017. He was named vice-captain earlier this season.


"It's always a tough decision to let lads go who have helped the club on and off the field but all the decisions are made in the best interests of the football club," said Hull manager Grant McCann.


"Ultimately, at this stage of the season, we only want players that are fully committed to the club's cause and our focus is firmly on working with the group that remains ahead of the last nine games."


Hull, who were relegated from the Premier League three years ago, have endured a torrid season and sit two points and one place above the bottom three. The play fellow strugglers Charlton this weekend and defeat will see them drop into the relegation zone.


Irvine started his professional career in Scotland with Celtic before joining Ross County and has been a Socceroos regular for the last five years.


Hull captain Eric Lichaj, Stephen Kingsley and Marcus Maddison have also left the club.

English Premier League clubs can give their supporters the chance to appear on a live video fan wall that will be streamed into stadiums as part of the top-flight restart this week.



How NRL set platform for EPL return



Not unlike what the NRL did in the opening three rounds of their resumption following the COVID-19 stoppage, the move is part of a plan to minimise the impact of games having to be played behind closed doors due to social distancing implications.


Other moves include a club-specific wrap around each stadium's lower tiers, the use of music at key moments, and a designated 'celebration cam' for players to share their goalscoring exploits.

There may be no faans in the stands but they can still enjoy the virtual experience.
There may be no faans in the stands but they can still enjoy the virtual experience.

The live video feeds, each of which will feature 16 supporters from each club, will be made available to broadcasters and to clubs for use on big screens during matches.


Tottenham were among the clubs to respond swiftly, confirming the video wall would be in place in time for their top-flight resumption against Manchester United on Saturday morning (EST).


Spurs fans must enter a competition, showing themselves kitted out on the sofa and will be encouraged to react to events in the game as they happen, though no audio will be played into the stadium.


"We are providing a select number of season ticket holders and executive members - our regular match attenders - the opportunity to be part of this unique experience," Spurs said in a statement.


The Premier League's 'Season 2019/20 Restart Guide' also confirmed fans would have access to live tunnel cameras, although these will be without audio, while audio from the coin toss will be captured live.



Champions League smorgasboard



UEFA are set to complete the Champions League with a 'Final Eight' tournament in August, including the final held over 10 days in Lisbon.


A source with knowledge of discussions between clubs and European soccer's governing body said that the proposal is expected to be agreed upon after a consensus was reached.


Under the plan the competition, which was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, will resume with the second-leg of remaining last 16 games played at the scheduled venues.


Then from August 10, the single leg quarter-final games will be played in Lisbon with the semi-finals on August 18 and 19 and the final on August 23 in the Portuguese capital.



It may be running on empty but EPL still packs punch



It's back. After exactly 100 days, 723 football quizzes, 17 attempts to fall in love with Russian table tennis and 63 FA Cup final replays on the telly, the Premier League returns to a near-empty Villa Park on Thursday morning (EST).


The midweek catch-up games are cellar dwellers Aston Villa, coming off a run of four straight losses, at home in a must-win game against surprise package Sheffield United, while Manchester City host a ninth-placed Arsenal side trying to finish higher than mediocre.


For Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta, it's a return to the Etihad after spending four seasons as part of the City coaching staff.


"It's going to be strange. I spent four magnificent years with those players and staff," The Spaniard said.


The fact the Gunners, who have looked impressive in warm-up matches, are away from home may not be a problem. Of all the Premier League sides, they are most used to playing in front of quiet - if quiet is a synonym for sullen - fans, so the empty stadium won't be an issue.


They didn't call it the Highbury Library for nothing.


And a quick glance at the Bundesliga stats suggests the lack of fans is hurting the home sides.

Before football was called off in March, 43 per cent of home teams in the Bundesliga won their matches. Since they've returned to play in front of cardboard cutouts and recorded cheers, the percentage has dropped to 21 per cent.


"We have got a good measure with what is happening in the Bundesliga," Arteta said.


"I hope it is going to help.


"Football is about passion and energy and when you lose that, it is balanced much more. It better be right that playing away is an advantage because we are away four times in a row."


The post-Covid rules in the UK include only 300 people being allowed in stadiums - mainly scouts and medical and coaching staff - and each team being allowed five substitutes a game, up from the usual three.


This opens up the possibility of a lot of youngsters getting a run in the top flight. Manchester City, for example, are virtually guaranteed a top-four spot, yet have as much chance of winning the league as Donald Trump has of being the next UN Secretary-General.


Pep Guardiola, who could also welcome back winger Leroy Sane after a 10-month injury break, has numerous future stars who might get a few league caps under their belts.


Good news for the players, but not so much for Fantasy Football players who are banking on Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling getting 90 minutes every week.


Round 30 starts on Saturday morning with Norwich City - who are going down unless they sign Messi next week - at home to Southampton, and Tottenham - minus Dele Alli, who's been suspended for a dodgy social media post, but with Harry Kane back - hosting Manchester United. Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba are back from injury for the visitors.


On Saturday night, struggling Watford host third-placed Leicester City, Arsenal travel to a Brighton side who have picked up six points from a possible 30 in their past 10 league games, West Ham are at home to Wolves and Bournemouth need a result against Crystal Palace at the Vitality Stadium to get out of the relegation zone.


On Sunday night, a relatively safe Newcastle host Sheffield United and look a good bet, Aston Villa play Chelsea, who are missing the suspended Jorginho, and Everton take on a Liverpool side who need only two more wins to secure the trophy.


The final match on Tuesday morning involves Manchester City's Benjamin Mendy - and a few of his mates - tearing Burnley a new one at the Etihad.


THU: Aston Villa v Sheffield United, 3am; Manchester City v Arsenal 5.15am.

SAT: Norwich v Southampton 3am; Tottenham v Manchester United 5.15am; Watford v Leicester 9.30pm.

SUN: Brighton v Arsenal, 12am; West Ham v Wolves 2.30am; Bournemouth v Crystal Palace 4.45am; Newcastle v Sheffield Untied 11pm.

MON: Aston Villa v Chelsea, 1.15am; Everton v Liverpool, 4am.

TUE: Manchester City v Burnley, 5am.

Originally published as Reunion, dogfights, title runs: Why EPL return has it all