By Brian Beard | 6th JUN 2020
It’s been long time waiting to write these words, previews of the first round of restart Premier League fixtures, but here goes, can’t wait. A cracker to kick-off proceedings, though I suspect ALL Premier League games will now have that aura about them.
The fixtures were leaked ahead of official confirmation for the first complete round of weekend games after the `double header` on June 17th.
Aston Villa host Sheffield United with the classic angle of both clubs requiring points for completely opposite reasons. Villa, still trying to hold on to their talismatic skipper Jack Grealish, desperately need a three point haul to get out of the bottom three and kick-start a drive to safety. There’s absolutely no question that Grealish will go if his team are relegated and a good chance he will anyway.
`The Blades` would have laughed you out of town if anyone had suggested European football was on offer come the end of the season, back in August but that’s exactly what could happen. Especially if you throw in the great imponderable of Manchester City’s current/potential absence from Europe for two years. Even if their ban is reduced they are almost certain to be restricted to domestic football next season, whenever that might be.
United have done so well this campaign, pre CV, because they have had the correct attitude and application to their game and not been overawed whoever they faced. It has been the classic case of genuinely taking each game as it comes and for Chris Wilder`s side it has worked like a dream, a dream that may well require passports very soon, restrictions permitting.
I am going for a draw.
Manchester City who host Arsenal are in quite a strange position, for them. They are about to lose their crown as Premier League Champions and, perhaps, a lot more besides. The current (and under-appeal ) European ban for transgressing – allegedly- FFP regulations would not only impact due to an absence from European competition but could also cost them their manager, Leroy Sane and remove the massive carrot by which Man City have attracted some top talent over the last decade.
Kevin de Bruyne has already indicated he’s off if the ban is enforced. Arsenal have been fighting off strong rumours that Aubameyang is on his way, with Real Madrid and Manchester United, seemingly, leading the chase. And in the week leading up to their trip to the Etiad more criticisms of the club`s recruitment campaign, especially under Emrie, surfaced.
I guess the criticisms of recent Arsenal seasons will not go away until they actually win something or at least show a more consistent attitude for a scrap, which is becoming more and more of a Premier League requirement these days. It will certainly be the case when the campaign restarts.
I think City will be too strong for Arsenal, home win.
Tottenham v Manchester United, even without the `minor` interference of Covid-19, this has it all; the return of Harry Kane and Jose Mourinho against his former employers, beats doing TV I guess, with the added incentive of points for European places at stake.
Spurs trail United by four points which normally wouldn’t be too strenuous a target but with the special circumstances surrounding the restart it will be crucial Spurs do not lose this starter. The club did suffer a minor set-back, in the greater scheme of things, when a fringe player became the only Premier League player to show positive out of nearly 1200 players tested.
On the plus side Harry Kane, from the evidence of footage uploaded to the internet, is back to pre-injury sharpness and I think I would rather be `arry chomping at the bit and facing United than the Old Trafford bunch wondering how to contain the Tottenham sharp-shooter.
Spurs to kick off with a win and Kane on the score sheet
Norwich City v Southampton: Saints are 13 points ahead of rock-bottom Norwich who are all but gone, unless they go on a record breaking points-gathering run between now and lights out. But what is apparent about the way City play is that they approach each game with the belief that they can win it, ask Manchester City.
Southampton on the other hand blow hot and cold and were it not for the goals that the very underrated Danny Ings brought to the pre Corona table their points total and league position would not be as healthy as it was going into this fixture. I think Norwich can turn Southampton over and who knows what a winning restart might mean to the Canaries.
Out on a limb with a home win prediction here.
Watford v Leicester City: Strange is it not that the biggest news out of Watford in recent weeks has had nothing to do with them being outside the relegation zone on goal difference alone but Troy Deeney’s decision to delay his return to training because of concerns over his infant son and Covid-19 risks.
Instead the concentration should be how Brendan Rogers will have organised the mind-set of his players as they resume their chase of Manchester City and a Champions` League place, especially Ben Chilwell who seems to have emerged as a Chelsea target in recent days. The down to earth approach, both the club`s and their manager, in recent years suggests they will ease back into the chase for Premier League points too easily for Watford to cope with.
Brighton & Hove Albion v Arsenal: Since Brighton have been in the Premier League games against the so called `top teams` haven`t been that rewarding. But in recent times the nitty gritty, and sleeves rolled up approach has stood them in good stead. Graham Potter has a good balance of common-sense, man management and coaching nouse to give them confidence that they can avoid relegation, despite going into the Covid-19 break just two points above the trapdoor.
I have to keep coming back to that old cliché, `it depends on which Arsenal turns up`. If they don`t bring their A game Brighton will win.
Assuming the Gunners don’t turn up, home win
West Ham United v Wolverhampton Wanderers: Is it just me or do the West Ham players mirror their manager in displaying a `rabbit in the headlights` demeanour in their Premier League performances? Mark Noble apart, maybe Declan Rice when he`s up for it, are about the only two West Ham players who could even compete for a place in most other Premier League teams.
Look at the league table and yet another cliché springs to mind – `the annual battle against relegation`. Only Southampton in the bottom half of the table have conceded more goals, 56 to United`s 50 and unless the Hammers can start with a win against Wolves I fear for the rest of their season.
Wolves have been a revelation since returning to the top flight. Over the past two seasons they have made a nonsense of a packed fixture list that would have had `Fergie` moaning about fixture congestion from one end of the week to the other. Nuni Espiroto has turned a Championship team into a team that is up there, as a joy to watch, with Liverpool and Manchester City.
AFC Bournemouth v Crystal Palace: This is a make or break season for Eddie Howe and the club that he will forever be associated with. `Rags to riches` just does not do justice to the miracles Eddie has done in getting Bournemouth to the Premier League and keeping them there. It may be a parting of the ways is on the cards whatever level the club is in next campaign.
Palace, on the other hand are only four points away from a potential place in Europe. Twelve points clear of trouble although Roy Hodgson will not permit foot off the pedal time they are just a couple of wins away from securing top flight football again.
This could be a very close game and one in which a game changer type of player can be the difference. Palace have Zaha and Townsend while Ryan Fraser and Harry Wilson, free-kicks a specialty, provide that sort of promise for Bournemouth.
Going out on a limb I say a home win
Newcastle United v Sheffield United: One day news surrounding SJP will centre on football, not in-fighting, politics and take-overs. On a purely football level Sheffield United are the right kind of team to go to a deathly quiet SJP and rattle Steve Bruce`s side. It cannot be understated what a bonus having 50,000 Geordies shouting for you is. It will be interesting to see how the men in black and white respond to Testimonial football surroundings.
I am going for the Blades to cut themselves another slice of `points-pie` on their drive for Europe.
Aston Villa v Chelsea: If Villa go into this game not having lost to Sheffield United I still think they will struggle against a Chelsea side that I believe is bubbling on the verge of something special. If Timo Wener is at the Bridge I think that will be a massive bonus to a squad already brimming with so much potential.
Werner is a world class player. Two more of that stature will turn Chelsea into title contenders again. Villa will have to deal with Chelsea, like Newcastle, without the massive support of their 12th man, the home crowd. I think Chelsea are just the kind of side that will relish this game playing to the sound of silence.
Everton v Liverpool: This fixture could take up the whole of this restart preview all by itself.
Six points from the title, before the restart, it might be less very quickly, I think Liverpool will hit the ground running. This fixture hasn’t got the parochial gravitas it once had. Too many non-Scousers, or even non-Brits, who do not have the same passion as Gerrard, Carragher, or Sharp and Ratcliffe means it is just another Premier League fixture albeit a fixture with history.
Everton, since their 1980s heyday, have been chasing their red neighbours in every aspect, fortune – Liverpool now worth £2 billion, success and worldwide adulation for the football they play under Herr Klopp. The reds can almost smell the coffee and with so many games left to gain the required six points I think their approach will be refreshingly cool and I think, at worst, they will get a point here.
The one, massive uniting factor for all Premier League clubs is not the necessity of playing behind closed-doors but just how the players will cope with the sterile, artificial, no-crowd atmosphere which will turn all games, in the richest league on the planet, into private practice matches.
I think it was in South Korea that they piped crowd noises through PA systems and, for the purposes of television at least, gave some semblance of normality to the very surreal feel of professional football. I was interested to hear Jack Grealish say that he felt it would be the foreign players who might struggle most with the quietness of stands that usually rock with tens of thousands of noisy fans. He said he had grown up playing in an empty Villa Park when he was playing youth and reserve team football and the prospect doesn’t bother him. Let`s hope that approach doesn’t get lost in translation.
By Brian Beard, Associate Historian to the Football Association.