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Players restore our connection and lift mood with promise of more enjoyment to come

Paul Hayward



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Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne in action with Arsenal's Kieran Tierney as the Premier League resumes behind closed doors. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Pool via REUTERS

Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne in action with Arsenal's Kieran Tierney as the Premier League resumes behind closed doors. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Pool via REUTERS

REUTERS

Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne in action with Arsenal's Kieran Tierney as the Premier League resumes behind closed doors. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Pool via REUTERS

Eleven minutes into the Manchester City-Arsenal game, Kevin De Bruyne surged forward and swept the ball beautifully to Raheem Sterling. The world made a tiny bit more sense again.

Evidence of the Premier League's return was written all over Jack Grealish's battered ankles and the story of a goal-line technology howler at Villa Park, 41 minutes into a game that ended a 100-day hiatus. It was also there in glimpses of creative football further north.

In Birmingham, touches were heavy, tackles mistimed, crosses sometimes wayward and set-pieces imprecise, but the old eagerness was there, especially from Aston Villa, who were pitched straight back into a relegation battle.

The big test for players is whether they can summon the old intensity without the mania of English crowds and television's multi-angled scrutiny. The early signs are that they will.

At Villa Park, there was none of the hesitancy we saw in the early days of the Bundesliga's return. Villa and Sheffield United were straight into the high work-rate and rough and tumble we know so well.

They barged and grappled and grabbed shirts. It was testament to the professionalism of both sides that they were willing and able to run so hard after such a long absence and only three weeks of semi-serious training.

Grealish, Villa's best player, might have hoped for a gentler reintroduction to help him find his passing range, which was generally good, despite the close attention of tacklers. Instead, every time you looked he seemed to be on the floor: a sign, perhaps, that subconscious fear of infection is not going to inhibit England's top 20 teams.

Wimbledon tennis it was not. The Open Championship it will not be. Club football has finally found a way to dominate June and July. It even managed a passable impression of rugby union with rolling substitutes (nine rather than seven on the bench, and five in the game allowed.) The two drinks breaks evoked a Lord's Test as top-tier football was staged in June for the first time since 1947.

With all those alterations to games we should have seen in March, it would be absurd to judge this mini-tournament by normal standards. We have to see it as the least-bad outcome.

When David McGoldrick went down injured at the end of the game, it was easy to think the rushed return had claimed a victim. Sheffield United lost two players to training injuries (they were unconnected, manager Chris Wilder said, to the lockdown). At the Etihad Stadium, Arsenal's Granit Xhaka was on a stretcher with an ankle injury within six minutes. Pablo Mari lasted only 17 minutes longer.

The risks are higher now, but they needed to be taken. There is no machine for measuring a nation's mood but it must have been lifted by these two matches on a Wednesday night - especially with one involving Manchester City and Arsenal.

The failure of referee Michael Oliver's watch to vibrate when the ball was clearly over the line in Sheffield United's favour showed the risks of "following the science". In this case, the science failed, by its own admission, thus extending the Premier League's astounding ability to find a controversy in any and every game - even a 0-0 draw.

It would be remiss not to say that the absence of tribal fervour was rendered inconsequential by another kind of emotion. With National Health Service logos on the front of their shirts and Black Lives Matter on the back, the players took a knee for around nine seconds before the games began. That display of unity, with an unmistakable message, lent the games a purpose greater than the sorting out of European and relegation places.

These games will come in swarms. Soon we were watching sheeting rain soak a higher class of player in Manchester. If Villa and Sheffield United could commit themselves to full contact, how would the more artistic football of City and Arsenal look on a weather-greased pitch?

The Premier League appeals on many levels but is defined these days by the high technical level and glamour of the biggest clubs, where pure ability sustains the 10-month marathon.

A same-day return flight from Stansted to Manchester for Arsenal was the clearest indication that players are out of their comfort zone. Some of the bodies may not be willing, but the spirit mostly is. To see Sterling, De Bruyne and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back on the pitch was another restored connection to everything we lost. Not the lost lives, but the things we enjoy. Four teams carried us in a better direction with promising intent. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk