There’s too much at stake for the Premier League not to finish

Keith Duggan: It's not only matters at the top that make voiding the league impossible

Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League is large but not unassailable. Photo: Getty Images

Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League is large but not unassailable. Photo: Getty Images

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The Premier League soap opera never stops and right now the burning intrigue revolves around the sci-fi question of whether Liverpool will be denied their first football league title in thirty years by a viral pandemic.

Last week marked the sixth anniversary of Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea, which unhinged a season in which Luis Suarez almost won the title by himself so he could leave Liverpool for sunnier climes without a guilty conscience.

It was a cruel footnote to Gerrard’s glittering career and a human error for which rival supporters will gleefully taunt Reds fans for decades to come. However, that moment will pale into insignificance if Liverpool’s spellbinding, untouchable season, which had reduced the league to a coronation, is ruined by a bat.

Morally and sportingly, awarding Liverpool the league title seems like the fair thing to do

If fate conspires against Liverpool, then the glee among opposition fans at their misery may be smallminded and unsporting and all the rest. But it will also be heartfelt and unconfined. Authentic bitterness lies at the heart of England’s football rivalries.

It’s one of the reasons why the Premier League has, over the last 30 years, been transformed into the most attractive and lucrative football competition in the world. Sky and all the other broadcasters may hype the games to the nth degree. But they don’t even need to. You just have to look at the faces in the crowd to see what it means.

Perfect dilemma

On Friday morning, Premier League representatives got together on a conference call to discuss what is, for them, a perfect dilemma. What should they do here? The financial motivations for concluding the remaining scheduled weekends and seeing out the 19/20 season are compelling.

But the practicalities of achieving that right now lurch between the dangerous and ridiculous. Among the proposals of the Project Restart document is that the football players wear face masks to protect themselves during matches which would, without question, be played in empty stadiums.

The same document also proposed the wearing of snoods at training. The idea that football players would need some kind of protective gear in order to play immediately casts a doubt over the safety of playing. Premier League footballers are lavishly rewarded for their talent and commitment and the financial pressure on clubs to see out the season is immense.

Simply ending the Premier League season now, with current table standings converted to final standings, would be to invite chaos and possible legal action

But the reluctance of many players to resume the season under such strained and strange circumstances is understandable. Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero put the case emotively when he pointed out that football players have families to protect.

“They have children, they have babies.” Why should they jeopardise the health of themselves and their loved ones? Why would they want to play football during a plague? And is it even right to think about sport when the daily death toll continues across England and the world?

Liverpool’s fabulous season deepens the complexity of the problem. Since last August, Jürgen Klopp’s team had rampaged through England’s football grounds giving exhibition after exhibition of pressing, attacking football. Even on afternoons when they didn’t fully fire, they demonstrated the stuff of future champions by winning games.

Since establishing themselves as serial league winners in the 1980s, Liverpool, one of the banner clubs of the English tradition, wandered badly off course. Thirty full years passed without a title and although their fans began to dream about bridging that gap under Klopp, they could scarcely have believed it would unfold like this, leaving all rivals, including Pep Guardiola’s City, in the dust.

Twenty-five points clear with just nine games remaining is the stuff of fantasy. It is obvious that they won’t be caught.

So morally and sportingly, awarding them the league title seems like the fair thing to do. But sport is business. Liverpool’s season long performance was of a preposterously high quality. Voiding the season would be a monstrously cruel decision against all of that industry and genius. A more predictable Premier League table scenario would have mirrored the 2018/19 title race, with City and Liverpool engaged in a nailbiting tussle and maybe Tottenham or Chelsea still technically in the race.

In that scenario, if, for example, Liverpool had a two point lead over City with Tottenham nine points behind both, the idea of halting the season and handing Liverpool the trophy would be met with fierce resistance. After all, anything could happen over the remaining games. And as it stands, it is mathematically possible that Liverpool could still be caught over their last nine games.

Vast advantage

Even allowing for the fact that their rhythm has been completely broken by the league suspension and the notion of playing in neutral grounds takes away the vast advantage of Anfield, that collapse almost certainly wouldn’t happen. But it could.

There is the smallest possibility that Liverpool could be caught - just as there was a small possibility that Liverpool would lost 2-0 to Arsenal, in the final game of the year, in Anfield, with the title in their grasp on that infamous Friday night in 1989. Sport is littered with examples of improbable turns.

The return of Liverpool as league champions, back on “their f**king perch” all those years after Alex Ferguson knocked them off, would be a terrific story for the Premier League. But the more lasting drama and consequence is at the other end of the table, where goal difference separate Watford and Bournemouth from relegation.

Those nine games would have a massive financial bearing on the future of both those clubs. Once a team slips out of the Premier League, it can be desperately hard to get back. Among those vying for promotion are Nottingham Forest, one of England’s gilded clubs.

Simply ending the Premier League season now, with current table standings converted to final standings, would be to invite chaos and possible legal action. But the Premier League is too big to simply erase the season and declare it void. And asking the football players to return to the field is not reasonable just now.

The only solution facing the Premier League is to wait; to extend the time in limbo, to be flexible with next season’s scheduling and to then bring this strange and unforgettable season to a close by completing the remaining games when it is possible to do so.

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