After nearly 14 weeks of forced hibernation, the Premier League returns to our lives on Wednesday with the two in-hand games slated to kickoff the resumption of play in the English top flight. By the time play concludes before the dinner hour here in the Bay State, all teams in the Premier League will be at 29 matches played, with nine to go before the conclusion of the season.
Here’s a quick refresher of where we are headed into the home stretch:
Liverpool are in firm command of the table
Not necessarily breaking news, considering the Reds — owned by Red Sox owner John W. Henry — hold a 25-point lead on second-place Manchester City and have, naturally, already qualified for the 2020-21 UEFA Champions League.
City will play Arsenal on Wednesday night (3:15 p.m. ET start), and a Gunners win would move LFC one step closer to winning the title for the first time in 30 years. And should Liverpool beat Everton in the Merseyside Derby this Sunday, that should be enough for the Reds to clinch.
And speaking of City…
Regardless of where Manchester City finish, it’s not going to Europe
Thanks to UEFA charging City with Financial Fair Play rules violations in February, the Blues’ place in the Champions League will go to whomever finishes fifth in the top flight. That also opens up a Europa League spot, and another should open up given that City won the League Cup in February.
Manchester City are also still alive in the FA Cup, in which it is the holders, and in the Champions League with a 2-1 edge on Real Madrid entering the second leg of their Round of 16 tie.
The FA Cup returns the weekend of June 27.
Who’s still alive for a place in the Champions League?
The better question might be who’s not in the hunt for the Champions League. Right now, Leicester City (53 points) sits third, Chelsea (48) fourth, and Manchester United (45) fifth. Wolverhampton (43, +7 goal difference) are sixth and currently occupy a Europa League spot, with Sheffield United (43, +5) seventh, Tottenham Hotspur (41, +7) eighth, Arsenal (40, +4) ninth, and Burnley and Crystal Palace both on 39 points and -6, with the Clarets in 10th on goals scored (34 to Palace’s 26).
While the premier European competition might be out of range for Burnley and Palace — hell, with the way Arsenal’s defending had played prior to the coronavirus shutdown, you can more than likely lump the Gunners in that pot, too — they are still certainly in the running for the Europa League. Anything can happen in football, and with nine matches to play, a logjam in the middle of the table (4th through 14th separated by 14 points) and just a sliver of daylight seen, the next nine weeks will certainly be interesting with clubs jockeying for position.
Who is currently in the fight to stave off relegation?
Eight points separate 15th-place Brighton Hove & Albion and 20th-place Norwich City, with Norwich, Aston Villa, and Bournemouth (20-19-18) currently sitting in the drop zone. A Villa win over Sheffield United on Wednesday (1 p.m. ET start) would move the Midlands side up to 28 points and, for the time being, out of the drop, with idle Watford moving back to 18th.
With such tight quarters, nothing is for certain — not even relegation.
Now, for the midweek fixtures:
Aston Villa vs. Sheffield United
The big news out of Villa camp is that Scottish international John McGinn is expected to be back for the remainder of the season, after being out since December with a fractured ankle. McGinn, a midfielder, had played in 17 consecutive matches for the Villans, going the distance in each. In short, McGinn is a big part of Dean Smith’s plans.
Without McGinn, Aston Villa won only three of its last 10 matchups in the league, including four consecutive defeats leading into the shutdown.
Smith also noted Monday that striker Wesley and goalkeeper Tom Heaton will not be available due to long-term knee injuries.
Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder has confirmed that the club will extend Dean Henderson’s loan deal from Manchester United in the coming days. Henderson’s loan was expected to end on June 30, but with the state of the season where it is, he will remain with the Blades until the end of July.
The question of whether or not the Red Devils will extend the loan into next season is in doubt.
Wilder is expected to halve a full squad available for selection Wednesday.
Manchester City vs. Arsenal
Both sides are fit and ready to go with no injuries standing in the way in this clash at the Etihad, the first match between the sides since Mikel Arteta left City to lead his former club, Arsenal.
City are on a six-match winning streak against the Gunners in all competitions, with this being its best run of form against the North London giants. Arsenal, though, are unbeaten in its last seven away from the Emirates, the last five five seeing the Gunners finish level and sharing the points. It should be noted that Arsenal have never had six consecutive road draws.
Sergio Aguero has scored 10 goals in his last 12 matches against Arsenal.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is currently on 49 goals in 75 appearances in the Premier League, and a goal Wednesday will make him the sixth fastest to 50 in league history.
All four have quick turnarounds, with Norwich playing Friday, Arsenal playing Saturday, Villa Sunday, and Manchester City on Monday. We’ll run it down during Soccer Weekend, the first in three-plus months on Friday morning.
Elsewhere in the world of football:
The Coppa Italia is today, with Italian giants Juventus taking on Napoli; both are slated for Europe this fall — Juve to the Champions League, Napoli to the Europa — so regardless of who wins, the seventh place side in the Serie A goes to the Europa, too.
Bayern Munich, as expected, won the Bundesliga title with a 1-nil win over Werder Bremen Tuesday afternoon.
The schedule for the NWSL Challenge Cup is out, and Hanson, Mass’s Samantha Mewis and her North Carolina Courage will take on Portland Thorns in the opening match on June 27, 12:30 p.m. ET on CBS.
We’re expected to hear news about the Champions and Europa Leagues re-start sometime Wednesday, as the UEFA Executive Committee meets to discuss both matters. Manchester City and Chelsea are still alive in the Champions League, while Manchester United and Wolves are still alive in Europa.