COVID-19 SPECIAL

English Premier League D-Day: How it could end

Defender Virgil van Dijk (left) and forward Roberto Firmino are key players of runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool. The Reds were well on course for their first English top-flight title since 1990 when the league was suspended owing to the coron
Defender Virgil van Dijk (left) and forward Roberto Firmino are key players of runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool. The Reds were well on course for their first English top-flight title since 1990 when the league was suspended owing to the coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Today is decision day for the Premier League. If the first and most obvious decision when its 20 clubs convene by video conference will be to postpone football's return from the earliest May 1 date for several more weeks, there are seismic consequences from their meeting.

At stake? The season: what happens to it, if and when it finishes and what it means for next year. Nothing about this is in the rule book. Everything would need a two-thirds majority, meaning 14 of the 20 clubs voting in favour.

There are three main options:

Void the season

By far and away the worst-case scenario. Financially, it would cause huge problems, with the Premier League owing its broadcast partners around £750 million (S$1.3 billion) for unplayed games.

But it would also cause footballing chaos.

It would be relatively simple to make Liverpool, 25 points clear, champions.

The problems come further down. Voiding the Premier League season would provoke a challenge from the Football League, with the Championship planning on three clubs going up.

Then there is the question of Leicester, currently in third spot.

It would be wrong to give the Champions League spots to last season's top four - Tottenham do not deserve a reprieve for their dreadful season by going back into the premier European competition - which explains why most of those in the top half want to play on to try and get in the top four while many of those in mid-table do not want to face a huge fine for failing to complete the season.

It would be strange - and wrong in many ways - to start the next season without ending the previous one properly. But three-quarters of a campaign is a sizeable sample size. The current top four and bottom three are there for a reason.

There are historical and moral as well as money issues. It would be unfair to strike goals and wins from the record; if, officially, they are deemed not to have happened.

End the season now

A wildly imperfect answer, not least because some clubs have played more matches than others.

Aston Villa are in the relegation zone but would leap out of it and above Watford if they win their game in hand.

Sheffield United, who have also played a match fewer than most, would go fifth with a victory which, depending on Manchester City's appeal against their European ban, could bring a Champions League place.

As it stands, Norwich, Villa and Bournemouth would go down, with Chelsea and Leicester joining City and Liverpool in the top four. But some clubs have easier fixture lists remaining: Villa have six home games left, for instance, which could radically reshape the table.

It would be strange - and wrong in many ways - to start the next season without ending the previous one properly. But three-quarters of a campaign is a sizeable sample size.

The current top four and bottom three are there for a reason, just as Leeds' and West Bromwich Albion's efforts in taking the top two spots in the Championship should not count for nothing. But it should form part of a season, not a whole campaign.

Finish the season, however long it takes

The best scenario, which is to say the least bad. None is perfect but this is fairest, determining everything - promotion, relegation, Champions and Europa Leagues qualification - over the right number of games, after playing everyone twice.

But if and when football returns, it feels inevitable it will be behind closed doors. Stripped of its atmosphere, surrounded by empty seats, it will not be the same. It will not feel right to the absent fans, though it is unrealistic to expect social-distancing regulations to be relaxed to such an extent that 75,000 can go to Old Trafford or 60,000 to the Emirates Stadium.

But it will be better than nothing: better for the fairness of the league, better for its finances, better in terms of bringing back a sense of normality and better with football's capacity to raise morale for millions.

There are two questions: how and when? The game's governing bodies say it can only return when "safe and appropriate", hence plans for players to be quarantined to reduce the risk they come into contact with anyone, and it entails the gamble that no one tests positive for coronavirus, forcing another break.

The other issue is when: Realistically June is the first possible chance, and maybe July or even August. It will have a knock-on effect. Fifa and Uefa will already be planning to alter the transfer window, perhaps by keeping it open until January, which would help revive football's economy by allowing money to flow around it.

Players whose contracts expire on June 30 may have to agree extended deals for another two or three months. It could be a logistical and legal nightmare that will involve complications but these are unprecedented circumstances where everyone will have to compromise and everything has to be considered.

The 2020-21 calendar would have to be amended if it does not start until September or even October. That might entail reducing the summer break, scrapping pre-season tours and shortening next season. That could involve removing the winter break, the Community Shield, FA Cup replays, the EFL Trophy and even the League Cup to free up more time for league games.

Some things will have to be sacrificed in the quest for football to resume as justly as possible and with much of its income intact.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2020, with the headline 'League D-Day: How it could end'. Print Edition | Subscribe