Not if, but when as Liverpool are guaranteed to win the title.
Soccer's pregnant pause has only heightened the anticipation ahead of the club's first league win since 1990.
So many myriad possibilities await as to where, when and how they and their supporters may celebrate but, amidst all the uncertainty of 2020, the only true certainty is that a coronation awaits.
Those of a selfish disposition will configure a gloriously symbolic route, victory in a Merseyside derby and an early carnival, if City lose against Arsenal on Wednesday.
Others might enjoy maintaining an illusory sense of a joust with their rivals; in that case, if both Liverpool and City keep winning, Jurgen Klopp’s men will be crowned champions just in time to receive a guard of honour at the Etihad.
Liverpool were in – relatively – poor form before the break, losing their potentially invincible tag with a stunning reverse to Watford, 3-0, before scraping past Bournemouth. The rest will have done wonders.
Allison Becker’s return from injury will boost a side who, unburdened by domestic knockout competition, will seek to topple as many of their predecessor’s title-winning records as they can. Most home league wins (all 19). Most wins. Most away wins. Most top-flight points. Largest margin. Earliest title win. Don’t expect an easing down after lockdown.
Their next trick is to repeat the feat – losing out on Timo Werner could already be an early blow to a defence of a title not yet officially secured. Despite this breathless race into the history books, Klopp is already bracing himself to turn the page.
Pep Guardiola’s men re-emerge within a new normal which looks nothing like the old normal but, on second glance, isn’t all that different.
They are still chasing three trophies and, a bit like a Kyle Walker sex party in lockdown, that might bring them some sense of satisfaction that at least they have been able to have as good a time as anyone even if they may not shout too loudly about it.
They are 11 points worse off compared to last season at this juncture but of much more significance is the vast cleavage between them and Liverpool – a difference 25 points represents a chasm.
Their return against Arsenal will signify the first steps in an attempt to close that yawning gap.
A failure to do so could have ramifications far beyond the handover of a league title; it could summon the beginning of the end for one of the modern Premier League’s greatest dynasties.
The threat of a European ban, too, hovers like a vengeful Damoclean sword above heads adorned with toppling crowns. And yet City could still finish the season with three trophies – and both manager and club’s quest for the elusive tin with the big ears may serve as a soothing balm.
Their European ban may be confirmed before their chance to win this season’s competition in August; aside from facing Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, their run-in is relatively hassle-free, meaning they can double down on European glory.
March’s league defeat to United and a first leg European win against Madrid summed up Pep’s mis-stepping side.
They had lost three from six before shutdown, a microcosm of their fitful campaign but the return from hamstring trouble of defensive pillar Aymeric Laporte, whose previous rush to action arguably undermined City’s charge in the first place, is a boost.
They will also welcome back their depreciating asset Leroy Sane for the first time this season after the Bayern Munich target appeared in last week’s in-house friendly.
The league’s biggest surprise packets since, erm, Leicester City.
They confront their own past upon resumption as Nigel Pearson, the manager without whom the miracle of Claudio nor the revival of Rodgers could ever have been contemplated, returns with his Watford side.
Pearson wasn’t there in December when Leicester levelled a 56-year top-flight record of seven successive wins – they would break the record with an eighth – but their record down south is poor.
However, a first win in four attempts would set them up nicely for a month that features a tilt at reaching a first FA Cup semi-final since 1982.
Chelsea, the side who have done for them in their last two quarter-finals, await once more.
In 2020, Champions League qualification is utterly more desirable than a maiden FA Cup win, however.
Ricardo Pereira, their outstanding player this term, is a huge loss and their form had stuttered before March’s shutdown, taking just 14 points from 13 games, as well as exiting the League Cup to Villa.
They are four points off Manchester City having played a game more but their lead over Chelsea is five points and eight over Manchester United who are currently fifth and could visit the midlands on the final day with the final Champions League slot up for grabs.
A fast start – extending the Chelsea gap after passing the Watford gap – is required. It will be quite the campaign for Rodgers, who fell ill with coronavirus.
Post-pandemic promise or purgatory awaits Chelsea and a manager whose folkloric status as a midfielder during their glorious 21st century eminence has yet to be stained by question marks about his management abilities.
Expect the scrutiny to become sharper as the business end of the season hovers into view. Lampard, frustrated at January sales inactivity, has no excuses now with next season a defining one as Timo Werner et al bump up the squad.
A strong finish would help. Already virtually eliminated from the Champions League, Lampard’s side remain in contention for an FA Cup win, a bauble not to be sniffed at but whether evidentiary of an emerging managerial behemoth remains unclear.
Aside from Liverpool, Chelsea’s run-in appears relatively benign but fellow Euro hopefuls Sheffield United and Wolves, unburdened by pressure, may test that thesis.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has spent the entire campaign recovering from his Achilles’ tendon rupture but is back in full training now; Christian Pulisic hasn’t played since New Year’s Day but is in line for a return. The break came at an opportune moment. Top scorer Tammy Abraham suffered an ankle injury while playing against Arsenal but has now fully recovered.
And while there appeared to be uncertainty about the player who provides nothing other than certainty, N’Golo Kante, it seems his doubts about resuming contact have eased somewhat.
Now Chelsea must maintain contact with the elite.
Inconsistency – their last three games were a thumping of Everton, a draw against Bournemouth and a defeat to Newcastle – demonstrates they need a late surge befitting the trademark of Lampard the player.
Like his Chelsea counterpart, another manager whose delusions of grandeur are mocked by reality but seemingly indulged by a fawning press pack in thrall to his endless enthusiasm and irritating likeability.
If Ole Gunnar Solksjaer really has designs on maintaining a long-term position at this now dysfunctional dozing giant, Champions League qualification through the front door is a must.
Bridging the gap to Chelsea is not unfeasible; after an early trip to Spurs and a renewal with dastardly Mr Mourinho, a clash with Sheffield United then precedes meetings with four sides in relegation trouble.
Their twin involvements in the FA Cup and Europa League threaten to load the Norwegian with a surfeit of familiarly weary excuses but a resourceful squad should brook no arguments. Impressive young man Marcus Rashford will finish the season when it looked like his season could be finished back in March. Unimpressive young man Paul Pogba lingers like a virus but his squad will don their face masks and grin and bear his presence.
Odion Ighalo was slated to return to China until his agent ensured that he wouldn’t and, after keeping nine clean sheets in 11 unbeaten matches, including that bracing derby win, United are clearly capable of embarking on a run.
If you get 2/1 for them finishing fourth, snap it up. Ole is talking a good game – as usual. Now his men must continue to play one.
On the face of it, one of the league’s most favoured neutrals could be set for a barnstorming finish to the season; they have already faced four of the five teams above them home and away so their trickier business is already concluded.
They are entangled in relegation tussles and their opening trio of matches against West Ham, Aston Villa and Bournemouth will reflect whether they have the enthusiasm to aim even higher than last season’s seventh.
Currently sixth, they look likely to emulate this season’s sprightly presence in the Europa League but Sheffield United and Arsenal are hovering at Wolves’ door.
After their 1-1 draw in Olympiakos, an early taste of behind-closed-doors action, a quarter-final in Europe also awaits this autumn and, given that campaign started last July, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side will have welcomed the break.
They have deployed just 20 players this season in all competitions – and three of them have subsequently left the club! Their less intensive style has clearly helped, too.
They were the most in-form league side before the break, their comeback win against Spurs a reflection of their thrilling brio.
For the dwindling romantics amongst us, Chris Wilder’s men continue to be a revelation, discarded from all predictions by the jaded ranks of pedantic punditry.
And, betraying a manager with an enterprising willingness to adapt to new conditions, they have sought to thrive rather than merely survive.
Compared to much of the flotsam and jetsam simply intent on staying in a league that rewards mediocrity and the stifling of ambition, Wilder has taken a blade of Sheffield steel and cut a swathe through the hype.
They could immediately jump to fifth in what could be one of the most watched post-pandemic games in the world – their game in hand against Villa this Wednesday.
Followed by Newcastle, a swift start could maintain their thrilling momentum.
They might need it as they have to play four of the top six (Wolves, Chelsea, Leicester and Manchester United) and yet aside from defeats to the top two, their record against exalted rivals is much more than reasonable.
Pre-hiatus Blades were surfing a wave and will be seeking to negotiate a path through what many deem inconceivable – a second wave.
They took 10 points from 12 and had won four of their last five games in all competitions – they remain in the FA Cup and had not lost since a narrow 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in January.
Those of you who know the author will recognise that a portion of his minuscule heart was thieved by the Londoners at an impressionable age, when a thrilling side served up slashing deeds of only occasional consequence.
That has been pretty much their history, save for occasional lapses of slashing deeds serving up more occasional inconsequence, but the stilled, stilted marriage of convenience between Jose Mourinho and Daniel Levy has poured ice into that once heaving of hearts.
Like the reasons behind Dele Alli’s suspension for their re-opening encounter against Manchester United, it all seems like one sick joke.
Currently eighth, they need to make up seven points on Chelsea to secure Champions League football, something that might have seemed inconceivable in March.
One word gives them hope. Kane. Add a second – Son – and a dramatic lurch from the mundane may indeed be feasible as both Harry Kane and So Heung-Min offer zest and class in a team sorely lacking both.
Moussa Sissoko and Ben Davies are also set to return to a side who have no fight in any other argument.
Whether Jose can unleash them is another story and his tentative dithering about a return to action during lockdown hardly hinted at a man impatient to act out a plan.
A run of six without a win reflected the malaise; the disillusionment following a resourceful, if characteristically dour win against Man City also an illustration of how Mourinho no longer casts rays of sun, only false dawns.
First, let’s get the bad joke out of the way. At least now Arsenal will be able to play in a library every week.
Eradicating the other bad joke, Arsenal’s perennially ditsy personality, may take more than just a pithy one-liner.
If the efforts against Brentford in a friendly are any example – and why should they not given their familiarity – Arsenal’s slow descent into a club defined by mid-table mediocrity may be confirmed earlier rather than later.
Certainly, David Luiz continues to display the standard of slipshod defending in that tie against the impressive Londoners which has typified his career and may yet serve as an unwanted coda as he seeks to end his career in Portugal.
Kieran Tierney is available again after proving his fitness in a friendly following a dislocated shoulder last December but the resumption on Wednesday comes too early for tigerish Lucas Torreira as he continues rehabbing from the broken ankle sustained in March.
Calum Chambers has only resumed light training so Mikel Arteta will have to weigh up the potential consequences of rushing back into action.
For all their characteristic catastrophising, the Gunners were going great guns before Covid-19’s interruption; unbeaten in the calendar year as Arteta’s December appointment paid immediate dividends; a hat-trick of wins in an eight-match unbeaten streak had lifted them to within eight points of fourth-placed Chelsea.
Any early momentum could be signposted as decisively as this Wednesday’s game in hand against falling idols City.
One other item of note is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s quest for the golden boot; he lies two behind the revitalised Leicester hit man Jamie Vardy.
A season with a Covid-19-afflicted manager, a car-jacking, Lacazette being Lacazette, a stroppy captain and an ugly managerial sacking might have some drama left. Boring Arsenal, eh?
Aside from fans of the Irish international team, few might really care how Sean Dyche’s men will complete this campaign but their buoyancy is heartening when you see how so many of their erstwhile rivals have become basket cases in lower leagues.
A club rooted in the community, the return of the professional sport in England means so much to this town, an aspect of their lives that it is impossible for anyone in this country to comprehend.
They are six points behind Manchester United and it would be remarkable were they to close that gap; human nature dictates they will lapse into a rhythm which may see them end up exactly where they resumed, extremely comfortable thanks to immense work-rate and canny precision.
Aside from a Cup defeat, Burnley were undefeated in 2020 and had pulled off impressive results against Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United, not to mention a stirring win against in-form Leicester.
Irish interest as Burnley prepare to extend their Premier League stint into a sixth season will alight on Jeff Hendrick’s future, which remains uncertain as Celtic and Italian clubs reportedly eye him up.
Few seem bothered in that part of Lancashire with more interest on the talismanic Ashley Barnes’ potential return to action.
After a dismal start to the campaign, it is heartening that not only have the squad stuck by an honestly committed manager but the club did too.
The Premier League manager who had to cocoon himself during the crisis seems likely to end the season by safely securing the Londoners’ status as a member of the elite.
They looked certainties to plunge through the trapdoor when a defensive injury crisis either side of Christmas contributed to a horrific run of just one win in 11 games.
But the fillip provided by a hat-trick of 1-0 wins – Newcastle, Brighton and Watford – should be enough to restore a semblance of calm.
However, the league’s toughest run-in will deter complacency as 72-year-old Roy Hodgson seeks a third successive mid-table finish in his managerial swansong although an effective 12-point cushion should suffice.
Mamadou Sakho returns but crocked Cenk Tosun has gone back to parent club, Everton; Palace don’t score many goals and the fidgety Wilfried Zaha has been underwhelming for much of the campaign.
Their survival owes much to committed duty, rather than any sense of duty. Looks like we’re stuck with them.
Mission one of the post-pandemic era for Everton is to ensure that their rivals from across the Park are not allowed to clinch a league title at Goodison Park next Sunday.
They will be desperate for City to take care of Arsenal on Wednesday. Humiliation, even if not immediately witnessed by thousands of spectators, will still wound deeply.
Carlo Ancelotti’s men have enough to be worrying about; the initial optimism following his appointment– five wins in eight – has receded; take your pick from the Newcastle boo-boo, an Arsenal defeat or a spanking from Chelsea.
Jean-Philippe Gbamin has picked up another injury just as he started training after recovering from his previous one; Morgan Schneiderlin is out, while Yerra Mina’s absence leaves only two fit central defenders. Theo Walcott will be missed, too. Or maybe not.
Moise Kean, who Irish fans will remember goading Troy Parrott into a Tallaght red mist in one of Stephen Kenny’s final U-21 games, remains an expensive flop.
The Italian forward broke lockdown rules when being secretly filmed at a party with senior executives reported to be furious, perhaps more so when they realised they are paying stg£80k a week for a striker whose transfer fee of £24m has produced the princely sum of one goal. It had promised to be a long summer for Ancelotti to make a fist of a rum job. A shorter one will make his task even more difficult.
Before the world became startled by the shocking revelations that there are known gangsters involved in professional boxing, that notable other bastion of morality, the Premier League, was breathlessly awaiting those nice people from Saudi Arabia into their front room.
Now some people would say that the representatives of a murderous regime with a laissez-faire attitude to human rights might be an improvement upon what went before but we couldn’t possibly comment.
If the change in ownership threatens to put Steve Bruce’s nose out of joint, who would actually notice?
Those who are fond of tearing down statues and banning TV programmes and the like would love to see the Magpies relegated but, despite a stiff trio of games against Sheffield United, Spurs and Manchester City, they also face five of the bottom six.
Looks like we’re stuck with them, too. The biggest decision remaining is whether the PL top brass allow the representatives of the Saudis to take over. Given their disinterest in who runs, say, Man City, one wouldn’t hold one’s breath.
Joelinton has found form in pre-season (or pre-restart?) games while Andy Carroll is likely to be fit after a hip problem, an occurrence that will swiftly followed by news that Andy Carroll is out injured with a hip problem.
The Toon are still in the Cup too, a rarity for them to last this far as the club have usually craved league safety over any sense of adventure.
The biggest pieces of news to emerge on this side of the water during lockdown was the two-year contract offered to – and gleefully signed – by popular Irish international Shane Long.
The Tipp man’s rarely free-flowing career in front of goal seemed to be frittering away for club and country but an autumnal revival – with the prospect of Stephen Kenny’s interest dangling, too – could be on the cards for the honestly toiling, if often wildly erratic, striker.
Southampton’s stand-out performance remains their worst: the 9-0 embarrassment suffered against Leicester City which almost cost the onomatopoeic Ralph Hasenhuttl his job.
Nathan Redmond, a most unpopular Irish striker even when that tentative invite was eventually withdrawn by Kenny, will return to a side whose eight-point gap to those in the relegation zone offers illusory comfort.
That’s because their form was pretty dismal before the lockdown – four defeats from five – and they also have some stiff tasks lying in wait, including both Manchester clubs and Arsenal.
They will hope to revert to the form – five wins in seven – which had coincided with the decision of the board to show faith in their manager by offering him a four-year deal when 9-0 defeats usually result in public shaming.
Such sound common sense amidst the Premier League circus deserves some rewards.
Danny Ings, Long, Redmond and Moussa Djenepo should provide the club with enough firepower to retain their top-flight status – goals are a priceless currency in those nervy final knockings.
Some Irish fans of English football have a curious relationship with this particular south coast club; ever since Chris Hughton’s sacking, they have willed them to fail miserably.
If they aim to do so, it is happening at a glacial pace and Graham Potter’s style seems little different to that of his oft-maligned predecessor.
They haven’t won yet in 2020 and are just two points above safety.
They are bolstered by a healthy squad, barring José Izquierdo. Teenager Tariq Lamptey, a £3m signing from Chelsea in the transfer window, is likely to make his debut when they open with a tough game against Arsenal at the Amex this Saturday.
This is followed in June by double dates with Manchester United and Leicester, then Liverpool and Manchester City.
But it is the game sandwiched between that quartet that Potter will circle in his diary – well, he would do if he knew the date.
Whenever it is played though, the meeting with Norwich, their first game in July, will be pivotal to their survival hopes. If they are still breathing by that stage.
Having drawn six and lost three pre-lockdown, it remains to be seen whether the break has been propitious or merely a stay of execution.
One wild card could be Irish youngster Aaron Connolly. Since scoring that memorable double against Spurs last year, the temperamental westerner fell out of the team and then smashed his ankle.
If he can strengthen both his mood and his muscle, the dynamic front man could engineer the necessary spark required to light the way out of a darkening tunnel of doom.
West Ham United
Another of those Premier League clubs with which it is difficult to locate any sympathy if one is a neutral, particularly given the pair of odious individuals who are in charge. And the less said about Karren Brady, the better.
Maybe it is was when Gianfranco Zola was dumped by the porn kings that any love died. Porn is where love dies after all.
That’s not to say Zola was a great manager. But he was a great man and it seemed to us he deserved a little better.
They have won just one of the last nine so David Moyes, another individual who isn’t short of amplifying his insignificant achievements into something quite momentous, will have a job to do to replicate last term’s great escape.
Only goal difference separates them from the drop – which is why Brady et al were less than enthusiastic about a restart in the first place.
Liverpool, twice, Manchester City, Leicester and Arsenal all did for them before the break and superior outfits like Wolves, Tottenham and Chelsea lie in wait after it.
Indeed, if Villa win their game in hand on Wednesday, Moyes’ men will welcome Wolves to a soulless Olympic Stadium – though it will be hard to tell the difference – already mired in the bottom three.
Tomas Soucek extended his loan deal from Slavia Prague until the end of the season and there are hopes that Jack Wilshere could be fit to play this weekend.
Even a truckload of Viagra might not be enough to keep them up.
Watford. Premier League champions, 2021. Remember where you heard it first.
Five years after orchestrating one of the greatest escapes of modern times, before being ushered out of the door before he could witness one of the greatest miracles of modern times, Nigel Pearson is at it again.
Bully for him, one might say, unless one has been bullied by him, I suppose.
And, irony of ironies, the first post-lockdown league game pits Pearson against his old club when Leicester make the journey south this Saturday.
Pearson’s escapade this time around may have to be completed sooner rather than later; Manchester City and Arsenal combine for their closing pair of fixtures and oxygen will be required before then.
Given they had just eight points from 16 games under another of those supposedly wily foreign managers so beloved of pointy-headed, chin-scratching football writers – this latest model now conveniently forgotten – it would be some feat by Pearson.
Troy Deeney’s declaration that he will play, despite some understandably public and honest vacillation, is a boost as he is a talismanic figure. Ironically, Adrian Mariappa, who was determined to make an impact, caught the virus and his return will be delayed.
After initial new manager momentum – 14 points from six games – Watford were 1-7 before the rude interruption but bizarrely the ‘1’ was a 3-0 win against champions-elect Liverpool.
The seventh of he ‘7’, a 1-0 slip to Palace, may be more instructive evidence. From conceding four in his first seven, they have shipped ten in their last six.
If Gerard Deulofeu and Abdoulaye Doucoure can stay fit and link up with the hungry Deeney, they have a chance of staying where they are, dangling above the trap door without falling in.
Watford to survive, then. And Pearson to then get sacked before an eccentric Italian pensioner is wheeled in to guide an unlikely fairytale story. Anyone got Giovanni Trapattoni’s number handy?
Eddie ‘The next England manager’ Howe faces a fight to retain his and the club’s credibility as a vibrant force for good in English football.
The man who was the first to take a voluntary pay cut as the pandemic struck and most in English football sat on their well-manicured hands knows that results are all that matter now.
He needs to get the job done and near misses against Chelsea and Liverpool before lockdown might typify a dastardly turning of luck for a side who have breathed so much fresh life into the often moribund morass who slosh endlessly below the Champions League elite.
If ever a squad needed to be boosted by the mythical, medical miracles who return like “new signings”, then this is one. Fortunately for Howe, he has a clutch of ’em.
David Brooks is the headline-grabber, the startling winger is back after missing a year due to two ankle surgeries.
Then there’s Lloyd Kelly, the eight-figure signing from Bristol last summer who has yet to kick a ball for his new club.
Jordan Ibe’s status is unsure; the man who “changed the game by breaking the rules” during lockdown by receiving an unauthorised haircut has been scalped from the squad.
Bournemouth have always been a side capable of raising their game and they will have to – they face none of their relegation rivals between now and the end of the campaign but must play four of the top six.
Being too nice to go down may not be enough to save Bournemouth and their manager.
Villa’s season was long since careering into unavoidable chaos before Jack Grealish’s Range Rover did the same during lockdown.
The image of him wearing a flip-flop on one foot and a slipper on another, eyeing expensive wreckage, could be a metaphor for Villa’s campaign.
That, or Danny Drinkwater.
Five defeats in five – one win in seven – culminated in a 4-0 trouncing by free-flowing Leicester last time out and ensured manager Dean Smith had entered the lexiconic staple as being a “manager under pressure”.
He has expressed the club’s resolve to stay where they are; then again, the one-time Ireland wannabe Grealish also said he would stay where he was when he made a video for the NHS 24 hours before his, ahem, unscheduled escape from confinement. Hard habits are harder to break and
both Grealish and Villa may struggle to flatten their chaotic curves on a fiendishly difficult run-in.
The eyes of the globe will be upon Smith’s side when they host Sheffield United in the opening game of the resumption; it is their game in hand, hence the rather unspectacular stage for the grand re-opening of the greatest show on earth.
Then, Villa face Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal at home, as well as having to travel to Liverpool and Everton.
Little wonder many are tipping their safety dreams to go up in smoke even if John McGinn returns.
Grealish may have the last laugh as he is destined to stay in the top division – with or without his boyhood idols.
Well, we all know commitment was never his strongest point…
“Let’s be havin’ ya!” Or rather, not. Veteran TV chef Delia Smith said she’d rather stay at home baking scones rather than attend matches when her occasionally docile faithful are locked out after lockdown.
And so she missed their encouraging 2-1 win against Spurs last Friday as they prepare for the opening clash of a gruelling relegation scrap, against Southampton.
It remains to be seen whether Delia and her hubby will be preparing a hamper to watch her side in the Premier League or the Championship this autumn. The odds are not favourable.
Trips to Arsenal, Watford, Chelsea and Manchester City loom large and it is difficult to see them amassing the six points required to reach safety from that lot, notwithstanding that is a minimum requirement as things stand. Carrow Road may be their saving grace – with or without Delia’s home-cooked encouragement – and on paper, all their remaining ties there are winnable.
Doing it on grass is the tricky bit. Especially when goals are an issue. Onel Hernandez, Sam Byram and Timm Klose have all been taking part in training, as has Hertha Berlin loanee Ondrej Duda.
They haven’t a hope.
Manchester United Premium
In a sequence of nine numbers, one jumps out of the pack: 37, 51, 41, 49, 51, 37, 47, 8, 69. They are the amount of club appearances made by Paul Pogba since 2012 when he made his Juventus debut in 2012 with 69 caps for France thrown in for good measure.