March 16, 2020 / 3:07 PM / 14 days ago

English game scratching heads for solution amidst coronavirus chaos

LONDON (Reuters) - Usually, a large portion of the Monday morning topic of conversation in Britain’s workplaces and playgrounds is taken up by the weekend’s Premier League and Football League action.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Coronavirus impact on Sport - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - March 16, 2020 General view of a Euro 2020 Countdown Clock outside Wembley stadium where it is due to host the Euro 2020 Final in July, as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs

Crucial wins, calamitous losses, when, not if, Liverpool will seal the title and, of course, the obligatory VAR gripes, are the subjects to launch the week ahead.

This week, however, after Friday’s suspension, there is no action to chew over, unless of course you follow a team in the fifth-tier National League — the highest-ranking soccer competition yet to stop because of the coronavirus crisis.

Not that there is nothing to discuss though.

Just as across the globe, from golf to cycling, from NBA to tennis, the unprecedented shutdown of top-level sport has left English soccer in limbo and scratching its collective head trying to figure out what happens next.

West Ham United co-chairman Karen Brady ruffled feathers at the weekend, saying the Premier League, in which teams have either nine or 10 games still to play this season, should be declared null and void.

As if Liverpool’s fans, like everyone else at the moment, haven’t got enough to worry about, the “null and void” scenario is enough to leave them suffering sleepless nights.

It is 30 long years since Liverpool last won the title and with a 25-point lead the trophy was as good as secured, until the coronavirus pandemic intervened and the Premier League hit the pause button, until April 4 at least.

Scrapping the season as if it never happened would be horribly harsh on Liverpool but advantageous for some clubs, including West Ham, in danger of being relegated.

Presently that drastic scenario seems the least likely but as across European leagues there is no precedent or rules to determine what happens if a season is not completed.

European governing body UEFA will meet on Tuesday and are expected to opt for a year-long delay to the Euro 2020 tournament that was supposed to start in June. They will also discuss what to do with this season’s Champions League which has stalled with the last 16-stage incomplete.

Assuming the coronavirus outbreak relents and sporting life returns to a semblance of normality, say in June, it would mean the Premier League and Football League, together with their counterparts in Spain, Italy, Germany and France and beyond, would have a window to complete the current campaigns.

BITTER RAMIFICATIONS

For the sake of everyone involved, apart from those with glaring self-interest, it is hoped that’s how it plays out, not least to decide which teams qualify for UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League competitions for next season.

Otherwise the ramifications will be bitter, complex and costly.

While Liverpool have run away with the Premier League, few issues across Europe’s big leagues are so cut and dried.

Just look at the relegation battle in the Premier League and the promotion battle in the Championship.

Six teams, possibly more, are in danger of dropping off the Premier League gravy train, with even bottom club Norwich City only six points away from the safety zone — not an unrealistic gap to close in the remaining weeks. Norwich will have the lawyers ready to roll if they are denied their escape bid.

In the second-tier Championship, West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United are favourites for automatic promotion, but at least 10 other clubs are in with a shout of going up, either automatically or through the playoffs.

The Premier League will meet on Thursday to discuss its options. One idea could be to award Liverpool the title, scrap relegation, and allow West Brom and Leeds to form a 22-club Premier League for the following season.

That would be hugely controversial though, as would having “playoffs” to decide the title, relegation and promotion issues.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Coronavirus impact on Sport - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - March 16, 2020 General view outside Wembley stadium where it is due to host the Euro 2020 Final in July, as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs

The priority will be for the current season to run it’s course, although fitting Champions League, Europa League and domestic cup fixtures looks fanciful — unless the next season began in October. Such a late start to the 2020-21 campaign however, would then impact on a summer Euros in 2021.

Playing the remaining games behind closed doors — thus satisfying the needs of broadcasters who have been left with crumbs for their huge investments — is another option.

But whatever happens, the soccer debate will run and run and like coronavirus, finding a solution will be challenging.

Reporting by Martyn Herman

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