Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Premier League return is welcome distraction from coronavirus crisis
The Premier League is coming back. Perhaps it won't be football as we know it. But at least it is football...
Last Updated: 30/05/20 7:27am
There will be no crowded streets around the grounds before kick-off. No gatherings in the pubs. No fans in the stands.
The matchday rituals will have to wait. This is not football as we know it. But a behind-closed-doors return is at least a step towards normality. After more than two months away, the sport we love is coming back.
Its return has been debated exhaustively and the discussion is sure to continue in the weeks and months ahead. Safety is paramount and that's not about to change.
But while there are far bigger concerns than football right now, it is also true that finishing the season - even in its stripped-back form - will provide some excitement and entertainment at a time when people need it.
One of the nationwide ironies, if that's the right word, of the last few months is that while we have all been talking more than ever - to family, to friends, to friends we haven't previously talked to for months if not years - is that there has been so little to actually talk about. When a walk around the park is the sole diversion for days on end, closely followed in the excitement stakes by taking the rubbish out, talking points are inevitably short.
In the grand scheme of things, of course, football's return changes nothing. But for conversation, for diversion, for distraction, the return of the beautiful game is a desperately-needed game changer.
There's no doubt that football will return in a different state. The game itself - the contest between 11 versus 11 - will be just how it always has been. But played out behind closed doors and in front of empty stands, its look and feel will be radically different. No doubt, it will take a little getting used to.
Still, the signs from the successful return of the Bundesliga are positive. And the trends are intriguing: so far, with just five home wins from 27 behind-closed-doors fixtures, the big lesson is that home advantage has been lost.
Which brings us to the biggest - from a sporting perspective, of course - question of all: who will be the biggest winners and losers from the shutdown?
The two-month interruption could act as a much-needed period of recuperation in some cases and an unwelcome interruption in others.
Some sides will be boosted by players who were expected to miss the remainder of the season returning from injury. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already voiced his excitement about being able to pair Paul Pogba with Bruno Fernandes in Manchester United's midfield. Harry Kane will be available to lead the line for Spurs.
It all pales in comparison to events surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, of course. But when the players step out on the grass and the cameras start rolling again, the nation will be watching. There will be no roaring crowds. No pile-ons or spilled pints. There will, however, be plenty to play for. Plenty for us all to enjoy. And plenty, finally, to talk about.
COVID-19 impact on football
March 5 - Pre-match handshakes banned in the Premier League.
March 11 - Man City v Arsenal is first Premier League game suspended; Liverpool v Atletico Madrid the last top level game played in England.
March 12 - Man Utd, Wolves play away Europa League ties behind closed doors, Rangers host Bayer Leverkusen in front of fans.
March 13 - Football suspended following an emergency meeting between PL, FA, EFL and WSL
April 15 - SPFL clubs approve plan to end the Scottish Championship, League One and league Two seasons.
May 15 - League Two clubs vote to end the season with immediate effect.
May 17 - Premier League players and staff tested for COVID-19.
May 18 - Scottish Premiership curtailed, with points per game determining league positions and Celtic named champions.
May 19 - Premier League clubs return to socially distanced group training.
May 25 - Women's Super League cancelled, with title and relegation to be determined.
May 27 -Premier League clubs vote to resume contact training.
What's still to be decided in the Premier League?
Liverpool, so agonisingly close to glory before the lockdown came into force, need only two wins to finally clinch the title. Their unbeaten record is no more - defeat at Watford in December saw to that - but they are still in contention for the highest-ever points total and a host of other records.
Liverpool could also have a say in what happens at the other end of the table. Among their remaining opponents are Brighton, who sit just two points above the relegation zone, without a win in their last nine games, and Aston Villa, who are four points further back having been beaten 4-0 by Leicester in the last game played before the lockdown on March 9.
Norwich, Bournemouth, Watford and West Ham are the other sides embroiled in the fight against the drop - there are only eight points separating the bottom six - and there are still enough games remaining for Newcastle and Southampton to be dragged into it too. The head-to-head battles between those sides will be pivotal, but every point matters.
In fact, the tightness of the table below Liverpool, who have a 25-point cushion at the top, is such that a lot could still change. Mathematically speaking, bottom side Norwich could still finish as high as fourth. Second-placed Manchester City could drop as low as 14th.
The battle for the European places is particularly intriguing, made even more so by City's Champions League ban. Their appeal will be heard next month, but as it stands a fifth-placed finish looks set to be enough to secure entry to Europe's premiere club competition next season. The Europa League places could stretch as low as eighth.
There could be surprises in store. Leicester are well-placed to gatecrash the Champions League party for the first time since their extraordinary title win, and could Sheffield United join them? Victory over lowly Aston Villa in their game in hand would lift them from seventh to fifth and put their fate in their own hands.
Manchester United, resurgent following the additions of Fernandes and Odion Ighalo in January, will still fancy their chances, however, and so too will Arsenal. Mikel Arteta inherited a side on the slide when he took over at the Emirates Stadium in December, but three wins from three before the lockdown suggested they were finding form at the right time. Wolves look in good shape too having only lost six Premier League games all season.
It remains to be seen, however, whether momentum carried into the lockdown will continue when football restarts. The players have had the equivalent of a summer off. They will return to training in various states of fitness. There are no guarantees that things will pick up where they left off.
It adds to the unpredictability about what happens next. While there are much more important issues in the world, the return of the Premier League gives us all something to look forward to.