BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Aston Villa and Sheffield United played out a goalless draw as the Premier League made a poignant re-start after the COVID-19 lockdown on Wednesday with strong statements against racism and an embarrassing failure of goalline technology.
In the first game back after a 100-day hiatus, visitors United were denied a legitimate goal at Villa Park when the ball crossed the line, but was not awarded, leading to an apology from Hawk-Eye, who provide the goalline technology system.
It was a let-off for Villa, who remained second-bottom in the table with 26 points, while Champions League-chasing Sheffield United moved sixth, a point behind Manchester United above them with nine games of the season remaining.
The match had begun with a strong statement of support for the worldwide protests against racism as the players and match officials all took a knee on the opening whistle.
All the players’ names on the back of their shirts were replaced with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ as the Premier League joined the international protest campaign sparked by the death of George Floyd in America.
There was also a moment’s silence before kickoff in memory of those who died in the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, which included the father of Villa manager Dean Smith.
The game’s major talking point arrived just before halftime when off-balance Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland caught a curling free kick but was bundled back over the line by team mate Keinan Davis in a clumsy defensive mix-up.
Referee Michael Oliver, pointing to his watch, looked to indicate that goalline technology had not verified the ball had crossed the line, despite what appeared to be clear evidence on TV replays.
There was also no intervention from the Video Assistant Referee.
Hawk-Eye issued a statement after the game saying the seven cameras in the stands around the goal area were obstructed by the keeper, defender and goalpost.
“This level of occlusion has never been seen before in over 9,000 matches that the Hawk-Eye Goal Line Technology system has been in operation,” the company said, re-igniting the debate over technology in football.
The visitors will feel hard done by but also had goalkeeper Dean Henderson to thank for securing a share of the points in a lively affair on a rainy evening, where both sides showed a lack of match practice.
He made key saves in the second half, first to deny Davis and then push away a rasping shot from John McGinn on the hour mark as Villa, who lost 4-0 at Leicester City in their last game before the league was suspended on March 9, made six changes to their starting lineup.
Yet sloppy defending, a characteristic of Villa’s play this season, almost came back to haunt them when a poor pass was intercepted only for John Lundstram’s 70th-minute effort to be blocked.
Neither side took advantage of the new rule allowing five substitutes, but Villa used four in another first for a league game in England.
The game was also stripped of its usual pre-match routine as both sides attempted to keep their distance amid strict health protocols, taking to the field separately and not shaking hands before kickoff.
Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Toby Davis