The Premier League is running out of time to complete the 2019-20 season on the pitch. Sixty days after the competition was suspended because of the coronavirus crisis on March 13, the road map for a return is still nowhere close to being drawn.
Monday's summit meeting between the 20 Premier League clubs, at which the English Football Association was also represented, was the latest video conference to come and go without a date being set for the resumption of the top-flight season, although we at least now know it won't happen before the start of June.
Two months after it all ground to a halt we still don't know whether, or how, Liverpool will be able to clinch their first league title since 1990 or how the Premier League relegation battle will be decided. We don't know where the games will be played, due to disagreements over U.K. government requirements to stage them at neutral venues. Perhaps most importantly, we still have no clear idea of how the Premier League will make it safe for all participants to be involved in competitive fixtures while the coronavirus remains a threat to all.
English football cannot be blamed for kicking the can down the road once again. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, with no end in sight, and nothing can happen without being sanctioned by the government, so there is a bigger picture to be considered. But sooner or later, the Premier League has to deliver its blueprint for re-emerging from the shutdown. UEFA has set a May 25 deadline for all European leagues to confirm either their restart plans or intention to cancel the season, and there's also an expectation that all domestic leagues will be concluded by Aug. 2 in order for the Champions League and Europa League to be wrapped up later that month.
All of a sudden, the Premier League is being squeezed by two crucial deadlines. If they miss the first one, it will begin to look impossible for them to meet the second.
While the situation across Europe is complex, with each country dealing with football differently, there is at least some sense of clarity as to what is happening, and when:
- In Germany, the Bundesliga will start again on Saturday after a 61-day hiatus, with all clubs in the top two divisions expected to adhere to an 11-point list of safety guidelines laid out by the league (DFL).
- In Spain, La Liga president Javier Tebas has set June 12 as the target date for football to resume.
- Italy's sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora said on May 6 that it was "impossible" to set a date for Serie A to restart, while the 2019-20 seasons in France and the Netherlands have been cancelled altogether.
In England, however, all we have is a government commitment to support a return to competitive action from June 1 if circumstances allow, alongside the Premier League's oft-repeated insistence that playing the season to a conclusion is the preferred option. There will be no football played in England on June 1, however. Sources have told ESPN that June 8 is the best-case scenario for a restart due to the need for clubs to give their players at least three weeks of preparation work in groups on the training pitch before competitive action resumes. At the moment, players are at the training grounds but are still doing individual workouts and observing social distancing guidelines.
Another Premier League meeting is due to held next Monday -- May 18 -- but there are so many issues still be resolved that the clock is beginning to tick louder and louder on those deadlines. There are still 92 league fixtures to be played. If the Premier League cannot restart on June 8 and has to push that provisional date back by just a week, it will be a difficult challenge to play nine match-days, and complete the FA Cup, before Aug. 2, even without the anticipated bumps in the road that will come with players testing positive for COVID-19 and the problems that will bring.
There is some optimism among clubs that the government, in conjunction with the police, will soften their stance on the neutral venues plan, which had been imposed as a safety measure to prevent fans from massing outside stadiums when games were being played behind closed doors. More than half of Premier League clubs oppose the neutral venues plan, with Brighton and Aston Villa publicly voicing their opposition due to concerns that losing home advantage in games could be damaging in their fight to avoid relegation.
But even if that issue can be resolved this week, the safety concerns of players must also be addressed. While ESPN has been told that many players want to return to action as quickly as possible, some have made it clear that they are reluctant to do so. Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose and Todd Cantwell have already spoken out to express their concerns, but without the kind of detailed safety plan that has been produced in Germany, it is no surprise that footballers are demanding more assurances that playing again will be as low-risk as possible.
But there are no certainties. Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, revealed that, for the first time, clubs raised the prospect of cancelling the season altogether at Monday's meeting. The clubs remain committed to playing the season to a conclusion, but the fact that deciding it by other means, such as average points per game, is now on the table is a clear sign of a growing acceptance that time is running out.
So when the clubs meet again on Monday, they really have to emerge with a plan. If they don't, the Premier League may have to go the way same way as Ligue 1 in France and the Eredivisie in the Netherlands by throwing in the towel on the 2019-20 season.