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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Premier League returns with chances of a twist in the tale in the race for Europe

Although the Premier League title race is a foregone conclusion, the involvement of as many as seven clubs in the UEFA Champions League conversation has set the stage for an exhilarating finish.

Written by Debkalpa Banerjee | Updated: June 17, 2020 2:13:46 pm
Manchester United are three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea. (Source: AP Photo)

After a surfeit of conference calls and coronavirus tests in the past 95 days of inaction, the Premier League, at long last, is set to return on Wednesday.

Although the remaining 92 matches will be played behind-closed-doors as per the government health protocols, the stage is set for the league to have an exhilarating finish with matches virtually every day until the end of next month. Even though the race for the title is non-existent with Liverpool’s colossal 25-point-lead, there is much to play for elsewhere, i.e; the fight for UEFA Champions League qualification and the relegation scrap.

With just nine matchdays remaining, the race for a spot in the continental competition will probably go down to the wire considering that there are as many as seven clubs in contention. To make matters more dramatic, Manchester City’s possible two-year ban from all UEFA competitions might have a role to play as well.

If City’s appeal to Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) turns out to be unsuccessful next month, then the fifth-place automatically transforms into a UEFA Champions League berth given the reigning champions finish the season on their current standing, i.e; second. Thus even the ninth-placed Arsenal, who find themselves just five points off fifth, have a glimmer of hope.

If Manchester City’s ban isn’t rescinded by next month and they maintain their second position, then a fifth-place finish will be enough to qualify for UEFA Champions League next season.

As it stands, Leicester City are best poised to take advantage of their position, having an eight-point cushion over fifth-placed Manchester United. Although Brendan Rodgers’ men have just won twice in their last eight outings and right-back Ricardo Pereira is out for the season, the Foxes might benefit from the three-month break as they get to start anew with a fit and firing Jamie Vardy.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have everything to lose if they fail to qualify for UEFA Champions League considering Frank Lampard has already started building his project with high-value signings like Hakim Ziyech and most possibly, Timo Werner. Down in fifth place, Manchester United are in a similar predicament too.

Just before the lockdown was imposed, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had brought back lucidity to United’s previously muddled approach on the field as the Red Devils scripted an 11-match unbeaten run, scoring 29 goals and conceding just twice. With the return of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, the newly-imposed substitutions rule, and the comparatively easier set of fixtures, the stars seem aligned for United.

EXPLAINED | How will the ‘Big Six’ benefit from new substitution rule?

As for the two north London clubs — Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal — the lockdown might have been a blessing in disguise. Back in March, Jose Mourinho cut a despondent figure as he admitted he wished he could fast-forward to next season as the injury-hit Spurs were on a six-match winless run. But now, the rejuvenated Spurs can eye for a late push for UEFA Champions League as Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, Steven Bergwijn, and Erik Lamela have all regained their fitness.

Arsenal, although unbeaten in the league since the turn of the year, have been suffering from their own set of problems — the lack of winning spirit highlighted by their league-high 13 draws and the turmoil in their own camp with talks of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s uncertain future. Although they have settled into a reality of Europa League participation off late, Mikel Arteta might still defy the odds as he did against the virus in March.

Sheffield United are currently seventh on the table with 43 points from 28 matches. (Source: Reuters)

Now, as for the twist in the tale, both Sheffield United and Wolverhampton Wanderers can throw a spanner in the works upsetting the high and mighty.

Scripting a romantic story, The Blades have brought themselves within two points of European recognition after getting promoted to the top-tier just last season. Although Chris Wilder’s gritty side are yet to face Manchester United, Spurs, Wolves, Chelsea, and Leicester, they can’t be written off just yet. As for their game in hand, if the Blades win their opening day fixture against struggling Aston Villa, they will move above United.

On the other hand, Wolves have continued to astound one and all by keeping themselves on course for another top-seven finish even after playing a massive 48 matches in all competitions this season. Now, it remains to be seen whether Nuno Espirito Santo decides to prioritise the league or the UEFA Europa League.

EXPLAINED | PL in the time of Covid-19, a whole different ball game

The tale of the 2019/20 Premier League season has already been forged into the annals of history with its hiatus and Liverpool’s record-breaking romp, but it’s not over yet. Over the course of the next five-and-a-half weeks, the race for Europe is sure to keep all the eyes glued to the screens as teams will fight till their last breath for the reputation, and obviously, the money.

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