Premier League returns: Everything you need to know as play resumes

arsenal-nicolas-pepe-manchester-city-raheem-sterling

Arsenal's Nicolas Pepe, left, fights for the ball with Manchester City's Raheem Sterling during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City, at the Emirates Stadium in London, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. (Ian Walton/AP)

After three long months away from the pitch, the Premier League makes its return on Wednesday with a pair of matches: Aston Villa vs. Sheffield United and Manchester City vs. Arsenal.

England’s top flight will follow in the footsteps of a couple of its European counterparts as the top leagues in Germany and Spain have resumed – the Bundesliga on May 16 and La Liga this past weekend – while Italy’s Serie A gets back to action on June 20.

For those of you who need a refresher after 100 days without Premier League football, and for those who are just now looking to get acquainted with England’s top flight, here’s everything you need to know as action gets back underway.

PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE

STORYLINES

The Premier League title “race”

The Premier League restarts with Liverpool a whopping 25 points clear of second-place Manchester City and well on its way to winning its first-ever Premier League title and first top-tier championship since 1990.

It’s a matter of when, not if.

Jurgen Klopp’s dominant side could clinch the title as soon as its first game back on June 21 in what would be a dramatic match away to cross-city rivals Everton, but would need Manchester City to lose to Arsenal on June 17 for that to happen. So we’re looking at June 24 at Anfield against Crystal Palace as the most likely candidate for the title-clinching match.

The unique battle for Champions League football

While the checkered flag is not long from being waved on the Premier League title race, the battle for European football in 2020-21 could come down to a photo finish.

Usually England’s top-four teams would qualify for Europe’s biggest club tournament, but UEFA’s two-year ban of Manchester City from European competition for violating financial fair play rules means fifth place will be enough for Champions League qualification if the CAS upholds UEFA’s decision – a final verdict is expected to be made in July.

As it stands, that team would be Manchester United but as the English top flight restarts only five points separate fifth from ninth and Wolverhampton, Sheffield United, Tottenham and Arsenal will all have their eyes on overtaking United once the Premier League kicks off again.

The top nine clubs have plenty of matches against each other scheduled for the coming weeks, so buckle up for a wild ride.

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The fight for Premier League survival

Like the fight for the final Champions League spot at the top, there’s bound to be plenty of drama at the bottom of the table, too, as a handful of clubs fight for Premier League survival with plenty of pride and money at stake.

While bottom-of-the-table Norwich City would need the greatest of all escapes to stay up, any of the five teams between 15th and 19th has a chance to survive or go down to the second-tier Championship – only four points separate Brighton & Hove Albion and Aston Villa – and none of them were in particularly good form when the season came to an unexpected halt: those five squads had combined for four wins, 14 losses and seven draws over the final five matchdays in the lead-up to the pause.

Now, thanks to the unpredictability of matches in empty stadiums and the fact that none of these teams have played a match in three months, the only thing we can truly guarantee about the Premier League’s fight for survival is that it will be must-watch TV.

Maybe the biggest wild card for the teams fighting for survival, much like those battling for Champions League berths, is that three months off has also meant time to heal. That means squads dealing with injuries before the break, like Bournemouth and Aston Villa, resume the season healthier than they’ve been all campaign. What role will that play in deciding the final positioning? Only time will tell.

MARQUEE MATCHES

Manchester City vs. Arsenal, June 17 – Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta faces off against mentor Pep Guardiola and former team Manchester City for the first time since taking over the helm at the Emirates in December. The Citizens, meanwhile, look for a restart rebound after falling to rivals Manchester United in their last Premier League game more than three months ago.

Tottenham vs. Manchester United, June 19 – Remember that fight for the last Champions League spot we laid out above? Well, this could be one of the matches that helps determine who is able to claim that final spot. You can bet Jose Mourinho would like nothing more than to steal that honour from his former team.

Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace, June 24 – If things play out the way we think they will, Liverpool will hoist its first-ever Premier League title at Anfield on this day with a win over the Eagles.

Manchester United vs. Sheffield United, June 24 – From the Championship to contenders for a Champions League berth, Chris Wilder’s Sheffield had been the biggest Premier League surprise before the pause. If the Blades are truly going to push for European football in 2020-21, a positive result against the Red Devils would go a long way.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City, June 25 – A mixed bag of results since the turn of the calendar means Chelsea’s grip on fourth place had loosened when the league stopped playing. Unfortunately, the Blues’ recent spending spree won’t impact this season, so Frank Lampard will need a solid showing from his current squad against City.

Manchester City vs. Liverpool, July 2 – Liverpool will likely have the title wrapped up by the time these two face off, while City don’t have much to play for in the Premier League. However, these two teams have provided plenty of entertainment over recent seasons and there’s no reason to expect otherwise in this one.

Tottenham vs. Arsenal, July 11* – Another first for Arteta as his Gunners take on their North London rivals for the first time under his guidance. It’ll also be Mourinho’s first North London Derby and mark Arsenal’s first trip to Tottenham’s jaw-dropping new grounds – although the atmosphere will be much different than past derbies without fans.

Tottenham vs. Leicester City, July 18* – Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester had also been one of the best stories of the 2019-20 campaign, but his squad had won just two of its final eight league matches before the COVID-19 pause. Barring an epic restart collapse, though, the Foxes appear to have a Champions League spot secured, so this match is more important for Mourinho’s Spurs, who need wins against top teams if they’re going to make a push for European football next season.

Leicester City vs. Manchester United, July 26* – The best match on what is scheduled to be the the final day of the season, we’re hoping Manchester United enters this game needing three points to capture Champions League football for next season.

*Premier League has yet to confirm dates and times of matches after July 2

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Bukayo Saka, Arsenal – The Gunners enter the restart with plenty of intrigue under Arteta and plenty of youngsters who appear on the verge of breaking out. The dynamic Saka is the best among them, and was really coming into his own at left-back before play was stopped.

Diogo Jota, Wolverhampton – The Portuguese had scored six goals in his last five matches before the pause, including a hat trick against Espanyol in the Europa League. If Wolves make a push for the Champions League, Jota will play a part.

Jack Grealish, Aston Villa – The best player and talisman for the Villians, Grealish will be vital to any chances his team has of Premier League survival. Maybe more intriguing though is where Grealish ends up next season (sorry, Villa fans), as he is almost sure to make a move this summer.

Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United – Fernandes sparked new life into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side after making the move from Sporting CP to Manchester United in January. The Red Devils were enjoying an 11-game league unbeaten run before the season stopped, and Fernandes was key to many of those results. The biggest question facing United and Fernandes: how will the Portuguese gel with Paul Pogba?

David Brooks, Bournemouth – Yet to play a match this season, Brooks was on the verge of returning from an eight-month injury layoff when COVID-19 brought everything to a standstill. Now the Welshman returns to a much healthier Bournemouth squad that will need the best out of Brooks and the rest of his teammates to avoid relegation.

Ismaila Sarr, Watford – The Hornets’ record signing struggled to find his form at Watford until a breakout two-goal performance against then-undefeated Liverpool shined a spotlight on just how vital the Senegalese could be for his side. As Watford battle for survival, more performances from Sarr like the one in that shocking win over Liverpool would go a long way.

Tammy Abraham, Chelsea – An up-and-down season leading the line for the Blues resumes with Abraham now potentially playing for his future as Chelsea’s main striker after news of the expected signing of German star Timo Werner. How Abraham answers the bell over Chelsea’s final nine matches will be fascinating to watch.

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