Who is celebrating now that the Premier League is back? I know I certainly am – I’m a big football fan and I’ve missed being able to watch live games. I’ve loved watching old games on YouTube, and listening to some great sports podcasts during lockdown, but I’m happy that the season is now back up and running.
The Premier League is back!
The Premier League returned on 17 June. It was the first English top-flight action since March and marked the start of a hectic run of fixtures. When the Premier League restarted there were still 92 games to play – and plenty still to play for. Here’s my take on the action we’ve seen so far.
Football, but not as we know it
Things are certainly different. The game might be the same, but the players are now performing in front of empty stands. Some teams are piping artificial crowd noise into grounds for players, but it’s hard to say how much of an impact this has had on performance.
As a fan watching or listening to a live game from home, it’s been a weird experience. Some broadcasters offer the option to have crowd noise added to the game you’re watching. But if the lack of fans in the grounds has proved anything, it’s that supporters are a huge factor in making Premier League games such and incredible experience.
There are few other differences too. Some of them – like elbow bumps between managers and face masks on the touchline – might not last beyond the pandemic. But other innovations such as the mandatory one-minute water break in each half might be here to stay.
Liverpool will have to wait
Even the most hardened rival fan would agree on one thing: Liverpool have won the Premier League. They’ve been around 20 points clear for a while now, and it would have been a huge injustice if they weren’t given the chance to make things official.
As it stands, the Reds need six more points, and they have another nine games to get them. If Burnley had beaten Man City on Monday night, then Liverpool would have just needed one more win. Sadly for Liverpool, City thumped Burnley 5-0, so it looks like their game in Manchester on 2 July could be the day they clinch the title – if they can win. They’ve waited 30 years, so another week or so is neither here nor there.
Hope and despair at the bottom
While things are virtually settled at the top, the picture isn’t quite so clear at the bottom. Three go down, but there are five or six teams who are still nervous. Norwich City are doomed – five points adrift at the bottom behind Villa, who have been shaky since the restart, despite the return of John McGinn and the talents of Jack Grealish. It’s hard to see how Norwich can get themselves out of this situation.
Brighton did their chances a power of good with a surprise win over Arsenal last week, which has given them a cushion over the likes of Watford, Bournemouth and West Ham. If I had to predict the clubs going down, I’d go for Norwich, Bournemouth and West Ham.
A wobbly start for Arsenal
I live in London and a few of my friends are Arsenal fans. It’s always a frustrating experience for them – football fans in general are prone to nostalgia, but Arsenal’s past teams are a constant reminder of how flimsy their current one is.
The defensive solidity of George Graham’s old teams, or the attacking flair of players like Thierry Henry seems a long way off at the moment. They look wobbly in defence and indecisive up front, and the restart has not been kind to them.
They need to bounce back from that defeat at Brighton with a win at Southampton – which should be an easy fixture for them. Still, they said the same about Brighton…
The race for Europe
As the Premier League makes a comeback, there are also a number of European places left up for grabs.
The first few games back haven’t cleared anything up yet – and the picture around European qualification is also complicated by Manchester City. They’re in second but are currently banned from European football next season. They’re appealing, but if that ban stays in place and one of the top six wins the FA Cup, then eighth place might bag you European football next year.
With that in mind, it means teams as far down as Burnley still have something to play for. While it might not have helped them much against City the other night, the chance to play in Europe next year is an added motivation for a number of teams as they play out the rest of this strange season.
My outside tip for European qualification is Everton – they’re a long shot, but with Carlo Ancelotti organising them well then there’s a chance they could do it.
What does the return of the Premier League mean for other sports?
It’s been encouraging to see how well the Premier League players, staff and fans have adapted to playing during the pandemic, and it bodes well for other sports too. I’ve already spoken here about how other sports are trying to return with varying degrees of success.
But for me, the biggest lesson from the return of the Premier League is that getting fans involved (safely) is crucial. Love them or hate them, those Zoom screens filled with fans reacting to the action they’re watching at home show that everyone – including players – is desperate for the excitement (and distraction) of live sport again. And, crucially, the return of the Premier League has also been a chance for players and clubs to show their solidarity and respect for our key workers and the Black Lives Matter movement before each game.
Sport is a huge part of life in the UK. It brings us together in a shared experience, and I’m so pleased to see it back.