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Strange Times: Covid-19 and the Premier League

Published: Updated: 12:43, 6 Feb 2023
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Football goes on as the world spins out of control once again, but for how much longer can it continue?

The global coronavirus pandemic has affected the entire planet in various different ways. In the Premier League, we've seen outbreaks take over entire clubs, matches played without fans, even the postponement of the season. Some months have been better, and less chaotic, than others, but it's been a rollercoaster ride for everyone involved with the sport during the last two years. After a summer and autumn in which it would have been easy to forget all about the virus, especially in the UK where restrictions were eased massively during the warmer months, it now seems like the bad times are coming back with a vengeance and football, like so many parts of our lives, is now engulfed with doubt. 

Current leaders Manchester City are 7/17 favourites to lift the trophy, Norwich City are 3/14 favourites for the drop and Mohamed Salah is 5/12 favourite to finish top scorer in the league, but who knows whether this Premier League season will even continue? With so much chaos and uncertainty in the air, it's difficult to be sure about any betting market now from top to bottom. Even the people over at draftkings sportsbook would have a hard time predicting what's waiting around the corner for the Premier League. Here are some of the key Covid-19 related points to take away from these past weeks as we head into the Christmas period.

Outbreaks on the rise at Premier League clubs

Recent weeks have seen several clubs return high numbers of positive coronavirus test results among players and staff, leading in several cases to the postponement of games. Brentford confirmed 13 cases prior to their weekend meeting with Southampton which led to that game having to be called off. Leicester were unable to play their games against Spurs and Everton due to an outbreak and the subsequent closure of their training ground. Manchester United had their meeting with Brighton on Saturday postponed due to the spread of the virus at their facility. It was later revealed that they would have had only seven available players for the fixture. Perhaps the most shocking instance has been at Spurs, who were the first club to be hit by the new Omicron variant. Such was the extent of their outbreak that they had to postpone fixtures against Brighton, Rennes and Leicester before returning to action in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool on Sunday. Their inability to fulfil their final Europa Conference League game against the French side was interpreted as them forfeiting the match by UEFA and the club are now out of the competition. That is just one of an ever growing list of knock-on effects that the growing spread of Covid-19 is having among Premier League clubs, and the list goes on.

Matches postponed left and right

Premier League fixtures are being called off all over the place, as are clashes lower down the English football pyramid. As clubs start to plan how they will navigate the already hectic traditional festive calendar, the authorities somehow need to decide when and how to reschedule these lost games to protect the integrity of the competition. At the close of gameweek 18, only 7 of the 20 teams in the Premier League have played all their fixtures and remain unaffected by the changes. Many sides have one, two or even three games in hand over their rivals and are sure to be in for some very busy periods in the weeks and months to come. It seems that almost every day a game is being postponed. The most striking and laughable example of this came at the weekend when the BBC's iconic Match of the Day programme showed highlights of the only game of the day - Arsenal vs Leeds United - with all five of the other proposed matches postponed. Gary Lineker joked on Twitter that for once perhaps there wouldn't be too much controversy regarding the running order.

To be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated

Whether or not one should get vaccinated against Covid-19 is a personal choice and football players are human beings with their own ideas and freedoms. It just so happens that many more players in the Premier League are hesitant about getting the vaccine when compared to the other major European leagues. Despite the likes of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp encouraging players in the league to get the jab and Premier League chief executive Richard Masters writing to all 20 clubs to do the same, many individuals are choosing to remain unvaccinated. According to figures released by ITV, only 68% of Premier League players have been double vaccinated, with only 81% having gotten the first jab. This is strikingly low when compared with Europe's other major leagues, with Serie A leading the way with the highest number of double jabbed players (98%), followed by Ligue 1 (95%), Bundesliga (94%) and La Liga (90%). Players can't be forced to get the jab but with those leagues largely able to fulfil their fixtures with limited problems and the Premier League on its knees, it's difficult not to see a connection there.

The return of football without fans?

Fans have already been restricted from attending games again in other European leagues to differing extents, but for now Premier League supporters are still welcome to attend matches. They do however have to provide either proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test. Scepticism about that, coupled with general anxiety about the virus, could lead to a drop in attendances, and some would argue that is already happening. Nonetheless, stadiums are still mostly full and football still has its atmosphere. But with things getting worse every day, and figures rising and rising, could we be staring down the barrel of stadium closures once again? Is the choice between watching games in silence or listening to fake crowd noise going to be back on the agenda in the not so distant future? Could we see the return of those ugly banners on the seats in place of supporters? Most will hope not, but with the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, nobody knows for sure.

An outright stoppage is not on the cards... yet

Premier League clubs met today to discuss the ongoing situation regarding the pandemic, and according to The Athletic, bosses considered the possibility of temporarily halting the season, as was done before, but for now have decided against it. The season will continue as scheduled and teams will attempt to fulfil as many of their fixtures as possible while following health and safety guidelines. For how long that can continue in this current climate is unknown, but fans can at least rest assured that for this Christmas weekend and next week, they will (probably) be able to enjoy the sport they love on the telly and in the stands.

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