MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - The Premier League has not played any matches since March 9 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but with UEFA having set a deadline of May 25 for leagues to inform them of their re-start plans, the clubs are actively seeking a way to resume the 2019-20 season and finish the remaining nine games.
Doing so would ensure they avoid potential financial penalties from broadcasters, crown the champions and decide the questions of European qualification and relegation. The league will hold a meeting with all 20 clubs on Friday and say they are evaluating a number of scenarios – so what are the options?
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The British government has said it will review the current lockdown restrictions on May 7. The cabinet minister responsible for sport, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, has been in talks with the Premier League and wants to see competition return as soon as possible.
But ASAP involves the restrictions being modified to allow sport to resume and for the league’s own medical advice to give the go-ahead. Those remain big question marks.
But if that happens, what is the plan?
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The indications are that if the go-ahead was given on May 7, teams would immediately return to training and undertake a minimum three weeks preparation to get back up to speed. The league would then resume in June – but it would be a very different kind of football.
While no final decisions have been made on what exactly will happen if the league does resume in June, the assumption is that games would take place without fans in attendance.
There has been talk of creating so-called bio-secure venues for sport, where players are based in nearby venues to avoid long trips and they arrive for matches dressed in kit and ready to play in order to avoid using changing rooms.
There are concerns about fans gathering outside grounds, so that may require neutral venues, with stadiums out of town and easily secured the most likely to be used.
With the need to cram in games quickly, FIFA has said it may allow five substitutions per team to lower the workload for players.
They would also need to test players for the virus before games to avoid infected players being on the field and possibly spreading it.
But what if the go-ahead for this plan is not given by government or medical officials?
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If the season cannot be completed, UEFA says the issues of qualification for the Champions League and Europa League competitions must be decided by sporting merit.
In practice, that would mean either the season is declared finished and the current league positions are used for deciding the outcomes, including promotion and relegation, or some calculation is used, probably based on points per game played.
Given neither outcome features in the competitions rules they could be open to legal challenge, however. Huge money rides on qualification, promotion and relegation issues.
But it would mean the league has champions – Liverpool are 25 points clear and would be handed the title they have waited 30 years to win. Neither option is perfect and both would cause rancour. But there is only one other alternative.
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The other possibility that has been floated is for the season to be declared null and void. The 38-game season could not be completed so it is written off. There are no champions and no teams are relegated or promoted. The game simply moves on to next season, like the previous months of play never happened.
Legally this could be the most watertight solution but it is also likely to face the most severe criticism – not least from Liverpool who would feel, with justification, they have been denied a title that they undoubtedly deserve and from clubs such as Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion who occupy the promotion positions from the Championship.
Perhaps the league could allow promotion but not relegation, expanding to 22 clubs for next season and it could simply award Liverpool the title.
But the messiness of all these options shows why the Premier League is hoping it can find a way to get the remaining games finished in whatever way possible.
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond