Longest season ends, pandemic issues linger for the EPL

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Michael Regan

Leicester's Jamie Vardy wipes his face during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester United at the King Power Stadium, in Leicester, England, Sunday, July 26, 2020. (Michael Regan/Pool via AP)

Once the final whistle blew on the longest English Premier League, 352 days after it began, there was a sense of relief and grief for Dean Smith.

There was joy at Aston Villa avoiding relegation on the final day of the pandemic-interrupted season, and sadness for the manager who could not share the achievement with his father.

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Ron Smith was one of the 45,752 recorded coronavirus victims in Britain, dying in May at the age of 79 during the league’s shutdown.

“It’s been emotional,” Dean Smith said after Sunday's 1-1 draw at West Ham. “I’m sure he’ll be looking down on us.”

The point earned in east London kept Villa just above the relegation zone. Bournemouth and Watford joined Norwich in dropping into the second flight of competition.

When the league was suddenly halted in the second week of March, after coronavirus infections were reported at Arsenal and Chelsea, Villa was two points from safety and used the hiatus to regroup.

“I thought we used it really well,” Smith said, “We had to, because we couldn’t keep doing what we were doing.”

Throughout the unprecedented 100-day pause in play, uncertainty persisted over whether the season would resume at all. Safety concerns collided with self-interest and fears about the billion-pound bill for not completing the 380 games.

It was a test of resolve for new Premier League chief executive Richard Masters, but Project Restart was accomplished.

Rules restricting the number of people allowed in stadiums to 300 meant when Liverpool fulfilled its 30-year mission to be champion of England again, players lifted the Premier League trophy in an empty Anfield.

But there was no asterisk on the title triumph. The full program of games was completed, unlike in France, where Paris Saint-Germain was declared champion of a curtailed season.

Leicester would have preferred the league positions in March to be the final standings. No team suffered more after the restart in June than the 2016 champion, blowing an eight-point cushion in the Champions League places.

The capitulation was completed by Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Manchester United, which took the last Champions League place off Brendan Rodgers' lineup.

The game-changer was Manchester City’s big off-field success in a season when the eventual runner-up was dethroned by Liverpool. City lawyers convinced the Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn a two-year ban from European competitions which meant fifth place -- where Leicester finished -- no longer provided entry to the Champions League.

Frank Lampard steering Chelsea to fourth place was an unexpected feat for the club’s all-time leading scorer in his first season in topflight management while hampered by the club’s transfer ban.

Chelsea reaped the benefits of Lampard having to delve into the club’s pool of academy graduates rather than making expensive signings. Fittingly, 21-year-old midfielder Mason Mount, who made his competitive debut only in August, scored the first goal in Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton.

“I’ve learnt a million things," Lampard said.

The season could still end for Chelsea in a Champions League final if a 3-0 deficit to Bayern Munich can be overcome next month in the round of 16.

Lampard's first chance of a trophy as Chelsea manager comes in Saturday’s FA Cup final against Arsenal. Like Chelsea, Arsenal turned to a former midfielder this season to take charge. Arriving halfway through the campaign as Unai Emery’s replacement, Mikel Arteta lacked the time to impose his vision on the north London club.

Arsenal will be absent from the Champions League for a fourth successive season and the only route into the Europa League is by winning the FA Cup after finishing eighth. Arsenal was even overhauled by Tottenham, which was adrift in 14th place when Mauricio Pochettino was fired in November and replaced by Jose Mourinho.

But there won’t be a fifth consecutive season in the Champions League for the 2019 beaten finalist. Although Mourinho dragged Tottenham back up the standings, a sixth-place finish means a return to the Europa League. Mourinho will need to strengthen the squad while not losing top-scorer Harry Kane to another lengthy injury layoff or a rival club.

“When all the players are available we showed in this last period where we belong," Mourinho said.

After moving into a new stadium last year, Tottenham has been particularly hard hit by the lack of matchday revenue. But financial uncertainty is prevalent now throughout the world's richest league amid recession fears. The government is planning on allowing fans to return to stadiums from October, but attendances could be capped at 25% with social distancing maintained.

How to bring fans back into games safely — while the COVID-19 threat lingers — is one of the big challenges facing the league as clubs head into an offseason that will last less than 50 days.

That could be determined by a scientific study on how much singing, including by football fans, can spread droplets which could contain the virus. The research involves the London-based Fortius Clinic's Prof. James Calder, who also chairs a government committee on the return of elite sports.

“If it is truly dangerous, then we need to continue those mitigations with social distancing,” Calder told The Associated Press. “We hope to have the results out in the next few weeks, which will then hopefully guide the government on what we do, not just in theaters and opera houses, but also what we should be doing in sports stadia with the crowds."

There is also a decision to be taken by clubs over whether to retain the use of five substitutes next season. FIFA allowed the temporary use of two additional substitutes because of the extra workload on players after the lockdown.

What will remain for a second season is VAR — the video review system that caused frustrating delays in matches before the lockdown stopped games being played at all for more than two months in this longest of English seasons.


More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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