Stars back, but will they align?
There will be no voices to cheer on the stars as they return to the pitch, but the sense of anticipation felt by Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspurs fans will be at a fever-pitch when the teams, reinforced by the returns of their best players, lock horns in a battle for a place in the top four on Friday night.
With just eight points separating Chelsea in fourth from Arsenal in ninth, the neck-and-neck race looks certain to continue over the remaining nine fixtures that each team will play, but tonight's fixture will certainly set the tone for at least one of the chasing pack.
Times were bleak during the coronavirus pandemic for obvious reasons, but as teams, these two in particular, return to the fold, they appear filled with a sense of optimism that had been missing for large chunks of their season.
Before the enforced break, Tottenham looked unmotivated. Mauricio Pochettino, the mild-mannered Argentinian who had nurtured most of the squad and taken them to the Champions League final last year, was suddenly sacked and the sport's most prominent anti-hero, Jose Mourinho, had failed to get his squad going after taking over.
Spurs spiraled ahead of the shutdown, going six games without a win, a period that saw them slip to eighth in the Premier League and meekly exit the FA Cup and Champions League. Their final game ended in a chastening 3-0 loss to RB Leipzig that left Lucas Moura in tears. The break was unkind as well, with Dele Alli banned for today's match after an inappropriate tweet.
Now, Spurs look a rejuvenated side, with Mourinho getting the time to work with his players -- even sneaking in a few sessions during the lockdown at a local park, courting the controversy he so thrives on. Nevertheless, their preparations and the return of England and club captain Harry Kane, alongside influential midfielders Moussa Sissoko, Steven Bergwijn and electric winger Son Heung-Min -- possibly the fittest player in the Premier League after completing a mandatory four-week basic soldiers' training course in South Korea and passing with flying colours -- has left them feeling a top four place is well within their grasp.
On the flipside, United went into the break following a purple patch that saw them win eight and draw three of their last 11 games after the immediate impact from Bruno Fernandes, who arrived in January. That allowed them to surge to fifth, three places and four points above Spurs.
They will also welcome back World Cup winner Paul Pogba and United's leading scorer Marcus Rashford -- who secured an immense win off the pitch by pressuring Boris Johnson to u-turn and pledge 120 million pounds to providing free school meals vouchers for poor kids in the UK during the summer holidays, a scheme the government had previously said it would not carry on over the summer.
The major product of the shutdown, other than a sharp fall in fitness levels, has been inconsistency despite the combination of superstars. Tottenham split their friendly against Norwich into four parts and if that did not show that players still have to get up to speed, the 2-1 loss provided a clearer indication. MU fared a little better, playing two games on the same day against West Brom, losing one 2-1 and winning the other 3-1.
A fifth-place finish could be enough to seal a Champions League place if Manchester City's two-year ban from the competition is upheld, but neither team will want to leave anything to chance. Fitness levels and how well their stars can begin to gel will be key factos and that will set up another tantalising clash between Jose Mourinho and one of his former teams, even if the narrative in the post Covid-19 world is completely different.