Let’s get the cold hard reality out of the way: As each hour of the coronavirus pandemic passes, the odds increase that the 2019-20 English Premier League season is probably over.
It goes without saying there are far more important concerns when it comes to the global COVID-19 outbreak. But as billions of people around the world await the moment when everyday life returns to normal, it’s understandable that fans of the most popular sports league on the planet are also wondering when it might resume.
With health experts in agreement that things will get worse before they get better, supporters should be clear-eyed about what to expect. Who knows how the situation might change between now and Thursday’s emergency meeting between Prem brass and club officials? Or after UEFA’s meeting on Tuesday with all its member nations?
This seems like an eternity ago now, but it’s been just four days since the Premier League announced it would carry on as normal over the weekend despite the coronavirus outbreak. Then Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea midfielder Callum Hudson-Odoi tested positive and common sense thankfully prevailed, with play suspended until early April.
That timeline was and is overly optimistic, though, based on all available information. With the peak of the virus’ spread predicted for May in the United Kingdom, resuming the season in any way without encroaching on next season’s campaign doesn’t appear viable. One Premier League executive, West Ham vice-chairperson Karren Brady, has already suggested as much publicly.
If and when that call gets made, the question shifts to how to manage the fallout.
Should Liverpool be awarded the title?
A report in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph suggested that league officials are already planning for the inevitability that this season is finished. Liverpool, the runaway leaders, would be crowned champions.
That’s hardly the way long-suffering Reds supporters wanted to see the club win its first domestic crown in 30 years. Just imagine no celebration at Anfield, no parade through the jam-packed Merseyside streets. Jurgen Klopp and Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah wouldn’t get to hold the trophy and high-five fans while perched atop an open-air double-decker bus. Not anytime soon, anyway.
The one saving grace is that Liverpool’s 25-point lead over second-place Manchester City would removes most of the controversy around such a decision. There will be dissenters, sure, not least opposing fans. But the Reds shouldn’t have to miss out on the title through no fault of their own. Enough of the season — at least 28 of the 38 games for each of the 20 Premier League clubs — has been played, and Liverpool’s lead is so huge that it’s a no-brainer hand it to them rather than not award the title at all.
The achievement will have an asterisk next to it, though. So will the entire season. Unfortunately, there’s just no getting around that.
Which teams should get promoted or relegated?
These are extraordinary circumstances without any real precedent to rely upon. As such, the Premier League’s goal ought to be achieving fairness above all else. When it comes to Liverpool, it would be unfair not to award them the title if things end as-is. But that would be the least of the Premier League’s problems when trying to put a bow on a season suddenly cut short.
The bottom of the standings present a particularly vexing challenge. When play was halted, just eight points separated cellar-dweller Norwich City and 15th-place Brighton. Three of the bottom six clubs are even on points. It’s impossible to predict how the relegation battle would’ve shaken out.
It would be incredibly harsh to relegate Norwich, 19th-place Aston Villa and 18th-place Bournemouth if they didn’t have the opportunity to save themselves. It would be equally unfair not to allow second-tier Championship leaders Leeds and West Brom to be promoted. There are also legal ramifications to consider, given the colossal amount of money at stake.
There’s no easy solution. But perhaps the fairest one involves not relegating any teams this season, which is apparently being considered. Meantime, Leeds and West Brom, both comfortably ahead of the pack in the Championship, could join an expanded 22-team Premier League in 2020-21. Five clubs would be then be relegated (and three promoted) to get back to the 20-club total for the following campaign.
That scenario would stink for Fulham — which currently sits third in the Championship — and the clubs in fourth through sixth, Brentford, Nottingham Forest and Preston North End. (Every year, the teams that finish 3-6 take part in a four-game playoff for the final Premier League spot.) Yet none of those clubs could feel overly aggrieved, as their ascension to the Prem was anything guaranteed.
What about the Champions League places?
As it stands, the top four is comprised of Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester City and Chelsea. Assuming that City’s two-year Champions League ban is upheld by UEFA following appeal, fifth-place Manchester United would participate in Europe’s top club competition next season in their rival’s stead.
As a practical matter, taking the teams that were in Champions League position before the shutdown makes the most sense. But it’s still unfortunate for the likes of seventh-place Sheffield United or ninth-place Arsenal, both of which are in striking distance and have played one fewer game than the teams they’re chasing. But even if points-per-game was used to calculate final positioning, it still wouldn’t be enough to upset the order.
It’s a hard decision, to be sure. It’s far from the only one.
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