MANCHESTER – Exactly 100 days after the last game, the Premier League is back.
In stadiums restricted to around 300 people as the pandemic dangers persist, Manchester City will host Arsenal after Aston Villa plays Sheffield United on Wednesday night.
It will usher in an unprecedented summer blitz of games in an attempt to complete the season by July 26, following Germany, Spain and Italy in resuming soccer.
It is a season that looked like it could be curtailed for the first time since the outbreak of World War II as COVID-19 was claiming around 1,000 lives a day in one of the hardest hit countries in the world for the disease.
But the government's determination to bring back the national sport to lift the mood of the nation ensured social distancing exemptions were granted to allow teams to return to training and now games. There has been a month of twice weekly COVID-19 tests for players and coaches.
“When the whole county went into lockdown, every industry sector was wondering when some semblance of normality could be returned to,” Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said. “But as soon as we’d spoken to government, as soon as we’d spoken to our clubs, we put in place really what I’d describe as a skeleton plan, trying to take it step by step, trying to fill in the gaps ever since."
The Premier League was suspended after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta tested positive for the coronavirus on March 12. It ensured there would not be another round of games before the government belatedly halted all sports, meaning tens of thousands of fans did not mix — which could have saved lives.
“I have thought about it,” Arteta said on a Zoom call with media which replaced the usual pre-match news conference due to health restrictions.
“I thought about the night I started to have some symptoms, how serious that was. It was a matter that I could not make a decision, it had to be reported because I could put at risk a lot of people."
Now Arteta's on-field priority is trying to return Arsenal to the Champions League. The north London club is ninth in the standings, eight points behind fourth-placed Chelsea. But fifth place will secure a spot in the elite European competition if second-place Manchester City's two-season European ban is confirmed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport next month.
City knows it will be surrendering the Premier League trophy to Liverpool. The celebrations have been delayed since March, but the title can be secured in the next week. If City loses to Arsenal in Wednesday's kickoff, Liverpool can end a 30-year drought by beating Everton in the Merseyside derby on Sunday.
The first game on Wednesday sees seventh-placed Sheffield United trying to maintain its push for Europa League qualification by beating Aston Villa, which contested the league's last fixture on March 9 against Leicester.
Now there is an initial run of 32 fixtures in 16 days — with only two clear without action. Kickoff times are also more spread out than usual to maximize television viewing with fans prohibited from stadiums.
Artificial sound will be made available to viewers, but some live supporters will be streamed from home into stadiums on big screens, with pubs still closed. Some teams like Brighton, where Arsenal visits on Saturday, will also put cardboard cutouts of fans on seats.
Players will be asked where possible to maintain social distancing — staying 2 meters (6 feet) apart — in dressing rooms, entering the field, during warm-ups and in celebrations. But there is a designated camera now to celebrate goals in front of.
“Obviously it is going to be an odd experience without fans," Masters said. "The Premier League won’t be back with a capital B until fans are back.
“I think throughout our discussions with government and across sports and those key working groups, real progress has always been made.”
For now, only 110 people will be allowed in the red zone around the field of play, and will be required to have returned a negative COVID-19 test in the previous five days as part of a medical passport that will see a barcode scanned before they can enter. They include players, coaches, medical staff, match officials, pitch technicians and Hawk-eye personnel for goal-line and video replay technology.
The amber zone at stadiums will include media and club executives, who won’t require virus testing, while the green zone is the outer concourse.
Teams are being encouraged to travel across England on the day of the game — ideally by plane — rather than staying in hotels.