Can the money-spinners get it right?
After 100 days of inactivity, England's Premier League will return to eerily empty stadiums across the country tonight, with clubs playing each of their remaining nine league fixtures in the space of 37 days to meet the provisionally scheduled finish on July 26 -- a game every four days for clubs no longer in the FA Cup.
There will of course be the strict protocols that have to be maintained in order to negate the threat of coronavirus infection, such as no handshakes, no spitting, no mass confrontations and no surrounding match officials. In the absence of ball assistants, spare balls will be placed around the pitch and, in a commercialisation of the game perhaps only possible in the climate of English football, players will even be directed by broadcasters towards a 'celebration camera' after scoring a goal.
But that run of fixtures, coupled with the fact that players will be returning to competitive football less than three weeks after beginning contact training and only a few days removed from their first taste of competition in friendly matches, will serve only to exacerbate the risk of injuries that has been highlighted in sport worldwide.
The Premier League will need its restart to go without a hitch in order to preserve its glamorous image above all else, and for that they will need to heed the warning signs from Germany's Bundesliga, Europe's first major league to resume their season.
There were a total of 12 injuries in Germany's top tier over the opening weekend as the Bundesliga returned to action despite the number of substitutions being upped from three to five on a temporary basis. Players there could not cope with the demands of the game after 66 days without football and the 'mini pre-season' had not done enough to get them back in shape. Whether the extra 24 days in England will make a difference, only time will tell.
Another observation that can be made from the restart of the Bundesliga is that home advantage has taken on less significance than ever before. Data from Gracenote shows that before the postponement of the Bundesliga, home teams won 43 percent of the 223 games played, with 35 percent being away wins and 22 percent draws. In the 55 games since the restart, home wins have plummeted to 20 percent while away teams have won 50 percent and draws have gone up to 29 percent. Prior to the lockdown, over 43 percent of matches ended with the home team victorious.
That will perhaps not be a problem when Arsenal and Manchester City face off tonight, with their stadiums usually having the atmosphere of a library, but it will affect teams lower down the ladder -- whose supporters are less 'prawn sandwich brigade' -- such as in the earlier kick-off, when Aston Villa face Sheffield.
Lessons can be learnt elsewhere as well, such as in Italy, where Maurizio Sarri was unimpressed by his side's showing on their return to football in the Coppa Italia, commenting that the players 'faded after 30 minutes' and that the situation was 'worse than in pre-season'.
If those observations were made by the veteran following a clash as important as the semifinal of a tournament, the Premier League will not be able to pride itself on providing 'the most entertaining brand of football' that it claims when most of its teams -- barring those in the race for the top four -- have nothing to play for. Sarri also had another cautionary tale, saying that he had been overzealous with the five substitutions, thereby disrupting the flow of the game.
With Liverpool on top by an unbelievable 25-point margin, needing just two wins from their remaining fixtures to secure the title, some may question why the league has restarted at all. But with losses already amounting to over 500 million pounds and some projecting it to climb over a billion, 'Project Restart' became almost the need of the hour. Whether it will pay off on the field is another question altogether.