LONDON (Reuters) - Three months after the last ball was kicked, the Premier League emerges from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic next week for what will be a 92-match slog to the finish.
While the virus is still affecting everyday life in Britain, the return of the Premier League, albeit behind closed doors, will offer a welcome distraction for soccer-starved fans.
Every match will be broadcast live, many on free platforms, and the action will come thick and fast from Wednesday, when Manchester City host Arsenal and Aston Villa welcome Sheffield United. Provided there is no surge in coronavirus infections, the season will conclude on July 26.
So where exactly were we when things ground to a halt?
It is easy to overlook but by the sublime standards Liverpool have set this season, they were having a wobble.
A 3-0 defeat by Watford at the end of February dashed their hopes of going through the league season unbeaten. They then lost to Chelsea in the FA Cup and, in their last game before the lockdown, bowed out of the Champions League with a 3-2 defeat by Atletico Madrid at Anfield.
Crisis? Hardly. Juergen Klopp’s side are 25 points clear at the top and, if Manchester City lose to Arsenal, can wrap up their first title since 1990 at, of all places, city rivals Everton next weekend.
If the destiny of the title is a formality, Liverpool will not rest on their laurels in their remaining nine games, with Premier League records in sight.
They need 19 more points to surpass the record 100 Man City amassed two seasons ago and, barring a dip in form, will likely shatter City’s record 19-point winning margin. Six more wins would also surpass City’s 32 victories from 2017-18.
With Manchester City banned from Europe next season, pending the outcome of an appeal, the battle for a top-four finish and qualification for the Champions League will sustain interest in the top half of the table once Liverpool have secured the title.
Third-placed Leicester City had stuttered in the weeks leading up to the suspension, but remain well-placed.
Chelsea and a resurgent Manchester United occupy fourth and fifth spots but Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and even Burnley and Crystal Palace are within striking range if they can hit form.
Norwich City are bottom, six points from the safety zone, but have shown enough to suggest they are not a lost cause.
Aston Villa, who have played a game less, and Bournemouth occupy the other two relegation places but the three sides immediately above the trapdoor, Watford, West Ham United and Brighton & Hove Albion will all face a nervous few weeks trying to guarantee their top-flight status.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge