THE FINISH LINE

EPL's much-awaited restart promises twists and turns

Fans will have to wait a year for Euro 2020 but they can get their football fix with the resumption of England's top division soon

AT the start of the year, I drew a big red circle around June 13 on my desktop calendar. This date was to be the start of football's European Championships, a month-long football fiesta with 51 matches held in 12 cities across the continent.

In a normal world, I would have been wide awake early this morning, all ready to catch the glitzy opening ceremony of Euro 2020, followed by the first match between Italy and Turkey.

Of course, things are far from normal these days, and Euro 2020 has since been pushed back by a full year to next June - all thanks to the pesky coronavirus that has wrecked havoc on the global sporting calendar and pretty much everything else around the world.

No shortage of action

I love watching international football competitions. Big events like the World Cup and the European Championships take place only once every four years, and what's so enthralling is to be able to catch the world's most talented players on the pitch at the same time.

The international teams are made up of players who ply their trade in leagues all over the world. It's common to see the household names from rival clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United in England, or Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, put aside their club allegiances and work together to bring glory to their countries.

While fans will have to wait another 12 months to catch Euro 2020 (yes, the tournament will still retain its original name next year), there is, thankfully, no shortage of action on TV these days as club football emerges from its long coronavirus-enforced slumber.

Germany's Bundesliga was the first of Europe's top leagues to restart after a two-month break on May 16. Spain's La Liga also finally resumed on Friday as Sevilla defeated Real Betis 2-0, with two more fixtures taking place on Saturday.

Over in Italy, the season got under way with the second leg of the Italian Cup semi-finals - Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus took on AC Milan on Saturday morning, while Napoli and Inter-Milan will square off early on Sunday.

But ask most fans these days and they will tell you they are salivating most at the prospect of watching the English Premier League (EPL) again. On Wednesday night, the world's most-watched football league - in hiatus since the middle of March - will finally restart. Precautions around Covid-19 mean that, just like the rest of Europe's major leagues, the EPL matches will be played without any spectators present.

Unfriendly start times

There's almost a quarter of the EPL season left to play - 92 matches, to be exact - and the majority of the games in the first couple of weeks have start times that are unfriendly to Asian audiences. The broadcasters are trying their best to spread out the remaining matches, and they have scheduled quite a number of key matches during Europe's evening prime time TV slot.

With Asia seven hours ahead of the United Kingdom, that means viewers in Singapore and the region have to set their alarm clocks more often for these 1am or 3am kick-offs.

But hey, we have been starved of our EPL fix for so long, so what's a few sleepless nights if it means we can root for our favourite teams once more?

After all, it wasn't too long ago when there was talk of cancelling the EPL season altogether and declaring it null and void.

That would have been an unpopular decision, and luckily the 20 teams have come together to agree to get the league restarted, with all the safe-distancing measures and hygiene protocols in place at the stadiums and training grounds.

As things stand, there are so many unresolved scenarios, and there will likely be plenty of twists and turns before the end of the season.

The most obvious outcome of the EPL's Project Restart is that Liverpool - without a league title for three decades - will finally get their hands on the shiny trophy. That long-awaited day could be as soon as June 22. If second-placed Manchester City - the reigning champions - lose at home to Arsenal four days earlier, Liverpool could seal the title with eight games to spare by beating, of all opponents, their Merseyside rivals Everton at Goodison Park.

With Liverpool guaranteed to be in the Champions League tournament next season, there are three more places up for grabs and as many as eight teams look to be in contention - Manchester City, Leicester, Chelsea, Manchester United, Wolves, Sheffield United, Tottenham and Arsenal.

The Champions League equation could get a further shake-up if Manchester City lose their appeal over their two-year suspension from European club competitions, after being found guilty of breaching financial fair play regulations. A decision on the appeal is expected in the first half of July.

If City is banned, that would mean the team finishing fifth in the table could qualify for the lucrative Champions League and reap as much as £60 million (S$105 million) in broadcast revenue and ticket sales.

Down at the bottom, the relegation issue is also quite intriguing. Six clubs are fighting to avoid being among the three to get bumped out of the EPL.

It's certainly shaping up to be an enthralling two months ahead for the EPL, and I'm going to try my best to savour as many of the games as possible. With Covid-19 still a thorny problem in the UK, it will be quite an achievement if the season gets completed at all.

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