Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

The Premier League is back but the shadow of coronavirus looms large

Empty stadiums at matches due to the pandemic threatens to damage global appeal of England's top flight

The Premier League begins on Saturday. PA
The Premier League begins on Saturday. PA

On a bright lunchtime in early October 2018, Arsenal came to picturesque Craven Cottage. After their hosts Fulham had equalised through Andre Schurrle, a World Cup winner, the guests dazzled, winning 5-1. At the Bishop’s Park End, supporters sang long and loud: ‘We’ve got our Arsenal back!”

It was the sound of hope and optimism, qualities that in English football need only the lightest stimulation.

Since that day, Arsenal have changed manager twice and recorded their lowest finishing position in the table for a quarter of a century.

Fulham have been relegated and then promoted again. But when those two clubs meet on Saturday, at lunchtime at a Craven Cottage undergoing reconstruction but always picturesque, there will be optimism in abundance. Only it will be harder to hear it, with no fans in west London or in any ground.

Optimism will also be tempered. The 2020/21 Premier League season begins amid the usual patchwork of hopes – Can those Gunners really get their Arsenal back? Can Liverpool’s remarkable momentum continue? How real is Manchester United’s advance? – but beyond all that broader doubts over whether the Premier League can regain its status as the most admired and envied domestic competition anywhere.

Will the season even finish on time? The pandemic casts a long shadow. Three days before Fulham and Arsenal raise the curtain, new restrictions on gatherings of people in England have been imposed by a UK government fearful of rising numbers of Covid-19 infections. Cautious plans to have limited access to stadiums for paying fans in October are back under review.

The global appeal of English top-flight football – “our Hollywood,” as one former UK foreign secretary described the great televised export that is the Premier League – has been partly built on the vibrant atmospheres of its stadiums. That, in turn, has nourished the league’s financial muscle, the power to recruit so many of the world’s leading players.

“We have to get fans back into stadiums,” warns Richard Masters, CEO of the Premier League. “It’s the big thing that’s missing, economic or otherwise.” Informed estimates have the Premier League £700 million (Dh3.4 billion) poorer if there are no crowds throughout 2020-21.

Other leagues face the same restrictions and will suffer financially from playing behind closed doors, and there remains envy from aboard towards a league that can still pack the mightiest punch in the transfer market.

It has a club, Chelsea, who can afford to poach two of the brightest talents from the Bundesliga, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, for a combined £120m.

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This summer's major moves in transfer market

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It still entices the best of Dutch football – Donny van de Beek, Ajax to Manchester United – the brightest starlet from Portugal – Fabio Silva, Porto to Wolves – and routinely plucks off young Spanish excellence from La Liga – Ferran Torres, Valencia to Manchester City.

Even vulnerable Fulham can still recruit World Cup winners. France goalkeeper Alphonse Areola has just joined them, on loan, from Paris Saint-Germain.

But the assumption that the Premier League will, by force of wealth and its vibrant football culture, gradually end up dominating Europe has suffered an abrupt check.

In the hurried end of last season, no English club reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. Only one, United, made it to the last four of the Europa League. Perhaps that was a blip, but in the short-term it was a very pronounced one.

In 2018-19, Liverpool and Spurs contested the Champions League final and Chelsea won the Europa League, beating the Arsenal whose fans had displayed such optimism at Craven Cottage eight months earlier.

This season, mastering the continental competitions will be made harder by a taxing domestic schedule.

The pandemic, and the late start to 2020-21, means the vigour and stamina demanded of Premier League players is unusually daunting. Midweeks are filled to bursting, what with two Cup tournaments to accommodate, and an international calendar that will extend into July with the finals of various major continental showpieces.

Yes, la Liga, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 – providers of the Europa League winners, Sevilla, and the two European Cup finalists, Bayern Munich and PSG, last month – also face condensed calendar. But they have given themselves a little more leeway by continuing to allow five, rather than three substitutions, per game. The Premier League goes back to the old normal, with a ceiling on three subs.

That may mean slightly fewer minutes for the up-and-coming would-be stars hoping that 2020-21 will be their breakthrough, for the next Mason Greenwood or Trent Alexander-Arnold to make an initial impact.

What can be relied on in the Premier League is that there are many fresh, young talents ready and waiting to thrive. The pity is that they cannot know when they will do so in front of the noisy, packed arenas that first made them fall in love with the great theatre of the Premier League.

Updated: September 11, 2020 08:22 AM

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