I do not envy the decision makers. All over the world people are trying to figure things out. Many school districts are trying to decide how and when to let kids back into classrooms. Bars and restaurants are trying to change their spaces to allow for social distancing. Professional sports organizations are trying to determine what resuming a season will look like. The common theme in all of this – IT IS HARD. Until there is a vaccine, there really is no “right” answer. It’s more a matter of what can be done to move forward in as safe a manner as possible.
The Bundesliga has given us a glimpse into what professional soccer might look like. The top tier league has returned in Germany. In England, everyone involved in the Premier League is watching closely. They’re trying to sort out their own logistics as well. Below is a look at what that could mean for 5 of the 20 teams currently in the top division of English football.
The Table – As It Stands Now
The last game played in the league took place at the King Power Stadium in Leicester on March 9th. The hosts put a hurting on visitors Aston Villa, beating the 19th place team 4-0. After that result, the current table looks like this:
To Coronate or To Vacate – That Is The Question
This one is obvious. Prior to everything coming to a grinding halt, Liverpool were on the brink of finally getting over the hump. It’s been quite a while since the Reds were Champions. In fact, the last time they won a title, there wasn’t even a Premier League! Their last title came in 1989/1990 and the first year for the Premier League was the 1992/1993 season. Since then, the Reds have finished second on 4 separate occasions (most recently last season). Currently, they are head and shoulders above the competition. With 9 games remaining they are 25 points clear of second place Manchester City. It’s been widely assumed that they would be able to take care of business and officially clinch the title. It would be their first ever Premier League Championship.
Clearly, fans in Liverpool are anxious to see things get back underway. It’s only a matter of time before they make it mathematically impossible for everyone else to catch them. They’d love nothing more than to formalize proceedings and clinch the title.
European Football – Champions League & Europa League
Part of the decision making process for those in charge at Premier League HQ involves how their ultimate course of action will impact other leagues. Not only are there three other professional divisions domestically that will be impacted by relegation decisions, but there are also international competitions to consider. Where teams stand in the table will determine what, if any, additional competitions they will qualify for next season. Currently, the top 4 finishers in the Premier League automatically qualify for the UEFA Champions League. The 5th place team earns a place in the Europa League.
There are additional permutations within that structure that could open the door to teams further down the table. Trying to cover all of that would make your head spin. Arguments could be made for several teams to have a chance at European football next season. One team that has drawn my eye all season long:
Sheffield United F.C.
“The Blades” were one of those teams who gained promotion from The Championship at the end of last season. They finished the 2018/2019 season in 2nd place, behind Norwich City. Since this season kicked off, they have exceeded expectations. From the league’s inception, there’s always been a pretty large discrepancy between the “Top Six (nee Top Four)” clubs and the rest. Financials vary greatly between the kind of money a club like Manchester United has in its coffers and the markedly smaller account balances of clubs like Bournemouth or Brighton & Hove Albion. Given the challenges of having to climb the Premier League table, the fact that Sheffield currently sits in 7th place (with a game in hand) is impressive, to say the least.
There are only 14 points separating the teams between 4th and 14th place at the moment! With 9 games remaining (some teams have 10 still to play) imagine how different the table could look. How many different teams could ultimately end up in those European slots in the standings? Finishing out the season enables the final standings to determine who gets to play in Europe, rather than having to derive some other system to figure out how to decide it all.
Avoid The Drop
The “relegation zone” is that pressure cooker at the bottom of the league table. Each season, the top 2 teams from the Championship will gain promotion. The winner of a playoff among the 3rd through 6th place finishers will determine the third club to move up to the Premier League. Conversely, the Premier League clubs who finish in the final 3 spots will drop into the Championship. It’s a precarious position to be in for sure. Much like the race for the final European spots, there is a logjam of teams still vying to avoid falling down a division.
Aston Villa F.C.
Remember earlier when I mentioned their 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Leicester City? Yeah – I’m sure it’s still keeping them awake at night. There are 4 other teams who are within three points of Villa as things currently stand. Norwich City are pretty solidly locked into last place, barring a miracle. That leaves two spots up for grabs. Of the teams involved in the “race to the bottom”, Villa are in the worst form. They have lost their last 4 games played and sit in 19th place. Since the formation of the Premier League in ’92-’93, the Villans have only spent 3 seasons on the outside (2016/2017, 2017/2018, 2018/2019). They managed to get back to the top tier at the start of this season and would love to stay afloat. Playing out the string is the only way they might claw their way back to safety.
While Villa have a pretty lengthy history in the Premier League, the Hornets of Watford are less intimately acquainted with life at the top. They’ve only played in six seasons in the premiership. Their current stint has never seen them finish in the top half of the table. They’ve flirted with relegation numerous times over the last few seasons. Team captain Troy Deeney has been among the more vocal players sharing his thoughts about getting things going again.
Currently, they sit just outside the relegation zone. They’re level on points with Bournemouth but ahead on goal differential. On the one hand, they may be content if the season didn’t play out, but finishing things off would give them the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the teams below them. They could possibly even leapfrog some teams in the table.
The Cherries find themselves “on the outside looking in”. Like Watford, they haven’t spent much time in the Premier League. They surely would love to take charge of their own fate. Legacy is on the line and they’d love to write another chapter in the story. After all, their rise to the highest division of English football was impressive. It’d been led by the man, the myth, the legend – Eddie Howe.
A former player at Bournemouth, Howe took over as caretaker manager in 2008. The team was on the brink of folding altogether. He was ultimately able to help the club secure its Football League status. It took a 2-1 victory in the final home game that season (affectionately referred to as “The Great Escape”).
After a few years away from the club, Howe would return in the 2012-2013 season. He would take over from Paul Groves, who was sacked after a dreadful start. The team was near the bottom of the table in League One when Howe arrived. He not only managed to stave off demotion but turned things around and earned a promotion to the Championship. A mere two years later they would win the title and earn promotion to the Premier League. They’ve been regulars there for the last 4 seasons. By most accounts, Bournemouth have had tremendous success under Howe. Their downward trend of late has people wondering if perhaps the magic is beginning to wear off.
Once More Unto The Breach
Needless to say – there is A LOT that still needs to be ironed out. I only highlighted a few of the teams involved in this situation. All 20 clubs have storylines that will be re-written to some degree as a result of the coronavirus. Whatever decisions are made with regard to this season, there will be a lasting impact on the league itself, and the sport as a whole. There are ramifications both economically and with regard to health and safety. Things will look different, but I look forward to the day when each club can get back to business.
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