The English Premier League returns on Wednesday after 100 days in the deep freeze, with Liverpool on the brink of winning the title in a radically changed football universe.
The English top flight follows Germany’s Bundesliga and La Liga in Spain in rebooting their seasons after the coronavirus lockdown, aiming to cram 92 games into six weeks of breathless action.
Aston Villa kick off against Sheffield United, to be followed later on Wednesday by Manchester City v Arsenal, before a cascade of matches.
Despite vocal complaints from some clubs and stars including Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling, “Project Restart” has largely gone smoothly, with regular testing of players and staff yielding few positives.
But when Villa and Sheffield United kick off, the watching world will be confronted with a jarring spectacle, with an eerie silence in the usually noisy stands.
Piping crowd chants into stadiums, cardboard cut-outs of supporters and live video fan walls will add colour but it will be impossible to mimic the usual vibrant atmosphere.
In total, about 300 people will be allowed in stadiums for each match, with strict health protocols in place.
There will be widespread disinfection of changing facilities, dugouts, matchballs, goalposts, corner flags and substitution boards.
People other than players and coaching staff on team benches must wear face coverings.
The games themselves will look different.
Players have been told to maintain social-distancing during goal celebrations and encouraged not to spit.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta admits players will have to find motivation without the urgency provided by fans.
“The game is different,” he said in his pre-match press conference on Monday.
“The intensity drops a little bit. That urgency from the crowd doesn’t exist any more, how passionate the crowds are in England. We have to adapt.
“We have to experience it. We have to find ways to motivate our players as well in moments.”
But Aston Villa manager Dean Smith said his players were desperate to return, talking about the honour of playing the first game.
“The eyes of the world will be on us and we are looking forward to it,” he said.
“The players have been itching to get back.”
The hectic fixture list, warm summer temperatures and a lack of preparation time could lead to more injuries, so world governing body FIFA has given the green light for five substitutions per match.
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