Football: Despite sterile surrounds, Manchester City give Premier League positive start after Covid-19 hiatus

Manchester City tried to enliven the empty venue with flags and banners placed on the bottom two tiers of the stands to cover up the empty seats. PHOTO: AFP

MANCHESTER (REUTERS, AFP) - It did not look like a football match, it did not sound like one and it did not smell like one, but the goal of restarting the Premier League was achieved on Wednesday (June 17) as Manchester City beat Arsenal 3-0 at the Etihad stadium.

Although the absence of spectators, inevitably, meant a strange lack of atmosphere in the ground and for the millions watching on television globally, the rhetoric about the sport being pointless without fans was not supported by the evidence of the 90 minutes on the field.

The league had officially ended its enforced three-month absence due to the coronavirus lockdown, with Aston Villa's 0-0 draw at home to Sheffield United a couple of hours earlier but the prime time slot was saved for title holders City against 13-time champions Arsenal.

It was business as usual on the field, with City deserving winners thanks to goals from Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden while Arsenal were clearly second best, hampered by early injuries and the sending-off of error-prone substitute David Luiz soon after half-time.

Everything else about the night, however, was very unfamiliar.

Sterility was, of course, the goal. Outside the ground, the food stands were closed, there were no fans gathered, no beers drunk and the only indication of a game being played were security staff - like everyone else wearing masks.

The only reminder of a normal match night was the smell of the fish and chip shop adjacent to the ground, which wafted across the perimeter of the Etihad, without the usual competition from burger vans.

The small amount of media, staff and medical services allowed into the ground had to undergo temperature tests outside the stadium after signing declarations about their health status.

Inside, City had tried their utmost to bring some sense of life to the empty venue with flags and banners placed on the bottom two tiers of the stands to cover up the empty seats.

Messages from fans around the world were broadcast on video screens and the public announcement system did its best to replicate some of the usual soundtrack to a game with pre-match music and team announcements.

Widespread disinfection took place including of changing facilities, dugouts, match balls, goalposts, corner flags and substitution boards, while everyone other than players and coaching staff on team benches had to wear face coverings.

The players, as they have done in Germany's Bundesliga, Spain and Italy, who had returned to action in the past weeks, adjusted to the new reality well - quickly settling into the rhythm and intensity one would expect.

There were no signs of players lacking commitment or focus without the noise of a crowd and the only concern would be the two early injuries for Arsenal, which may reflect the impact of the enforced lengthy absence from the field.

But footballers can adjust to most things and if the collection of international stars needed any reminder of where they were despite all the strangeness, a traditional Manchester downpour at kickoff appeared to do the trick.

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