The Premier League is fiercely divided over the possibility of a ‘firebreak’ shutdown caused by spiralling Covid cases among clubs and nine postponed matches in the top flight.
Five of the 10 scheduled Premier League matches across Saturday and Sunday have already been called off, taking the total number of postponed top-flight fixtures this week to nine.
It has led Premier League shareholders to hold talks on Monday to discuss a festive shutdown of football, according to reports, as its clubs struggle with several outbreaks of the Omicron Covid variant.
Managers and chairmen are split over the possibility of the season coming to a halt with some insisting it is ‘unfair’ to have only a small number of clubs playing while others believe there is no need for a ‘firebreak’ at present.
And an expert in public health has told Sportsmail that there will be no benefit from a shutdown, while Covid-19 infection rates are rising so rapidly, and the Premier League must prepare for six weeks of chaos.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta has demanded ‘more clarity’ on why matches are being postponed and urged the Premier league to issue guidance on the rules to ‘maintain fairness’.
Newcastle manager Eddie Howe agreed, insisting a decision needs to be made over the future of the campaign as soon as possible to ‘ensure integrity is maintained’.
However, opposition came from Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp who insisted on Thursday night that he sees no point of a ‘circuit breaker’ and just urged football chiefs to be more ‘flexible’ with the schedule.
Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish is also opposed and wants to play as many games as possible, insisting there have been not enough cancellations to enforce a pause – in his view.
Mikel Arteta wants the Premier League to give ‘more clarity’ on why games are being called off
The Premier League will discuss temporarily stopping the season on Monday, say reports
Newcastle manager Eddie Howe says a decision needs to be made over the campaign to ‘ensure integrity is maintained’
Arteta, whose side face Leeds on Saturday night, believes the Premier League needs to provide ‘more clarity’ on the rules behind matches being called off to ensure the competition maintains integrity.
The Spaniard said on Friday: ‘Well health wise I hope we’re doing everything we can to protect everybody.
‘I’m sure with everything we are doing we can do our best to keep everybody healthy.
‘We need more clarity on why those games are not being played and what you need to not have a game played so you can maintain the fairness of the competition.
‘We always want to play when we have the right conditions to do so 100 per cent. But we’ve been here on the other side of the table where we’ve had all the arguments in the build up to a football match and ended up playing it. That’s why we need clarity to maintain fairness.
‘I think there are people that know much more than I do to try to find out what the best solution is for this. It’s not something I want to give an opinion on because I’m not a specialist. We have to rely on the government and Premier League to make the right decision.
‘What I’m saying is let’s make a decision based on what is best for the competition and the health of everyone involved. After that then clear guidance on if it’s a yes or a no.’
Chelsea’s clash with Everton took place on Thursday, despite other matches being called off
Howe, whose Newcastle side are battling Premier League relegation agreed with the Spaniard and said the Premier League risks becoming ‘slightly unfair’.
He said: ‘I don’t think we want half the games played and half not played.
‘The league really loses something if it becomes disjointed in terms of games played.
‘When you start losing players to Covid then the worry is the competition becomes slightly unfair and I don’t think anyone wants to see that.
‘A decision needs to be made to ensure integrity is maintained in the competition. I think it is on a knife edge.
‘People want to see a fair league and not disparity in games and players missing.
‘I’m desperate to continue the programme myself but the welfare of the players and supporters has to come first.’
Brentford manager Thomas Frank revealed his club’s desire to announce a temporary stop
Jurgen Klopp sees no point in a ‘circuit breaker’ stop after Liverpool’s win over Newcastle
Arteta and Howe’s stances follow Brentford manager Thomas Frank announcing his club’s desire to announce a temporary stop on Thursday morning.
The Danish manager claimed the variant is ‘running like wildfire’ around the world and that shutting down football for at least a week would help clubs get things under control.
Brighton vs Tottenham – Sunday, December 12
Brentford vs Man United – Tuesday, December 14
Burnley vs Watford – Wednesday, December 15
Leicester vs Tottenham – Thursday, December 16
Man Utd vs Brighton – Saturday, December 18
Southampton vs Brentford – Saturday, December 18
Watford vs Crystal Palace – Saturday, December 18
West Ham vs Norwich – Saturday, December 18
Everton vs Leicester – Sunday, December 19
Frank told a press conference on Thursday morning: ‘It would give everyone a week at least, or four or five days to clean and do everything at the training ground so everything is clean and you break the chain.
‘Also in football, you need close contact. Physios need to do their job with players in treatment. We are in dressing room on matchdays, we are travelling by coaches so it’s a little bit more difficult to work from home.’
According to The Times, Premier League chiefs will meet on Monday to discuss a potential shutdown, just a day after announcing their commitment to stick to the current schedule.
But a ‘circuit break’ would have minimal impact, Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, told Sportsmail.
In fact, it would only have a chance of success if the break lasted six weeks, until the Omicron peak has passed, he said.
‘The question is, ‘would a circuit break mean they would go back afterwards and everything would be OK’? And the answer is ‘no’,’ said Prof Hunter. ‘It is likely it would just delay the inevitable.’
The academic predicted more than a week ago that the Omicron variant would wreak havoc in football because it is particularly prevalent in the 20-30 age group and footballers have a patchy record on vaccination, meaning many are still short of their booster jab, with a significant proportion unvaccinated.
He has warned the ‘majority’ of clubs will experience an outbreak of Covid and once it has penetrated a squad’s bubble it can spread extremely quickly. While rates of Covid-19 infection remain high in the community, clubs will continue to be affected.
Fans can still attend Premier League matches under the Government’s Plan B rules
Fans can attend matches in England under the Government’s Plan B measures.
In a stadiums, with a capacity of more than 10,000, supporters must be ready to show a Covid pass, which demonstrates double vaccination or a negative lateral flow test.
However, Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in public health, says fans can protect themselves further by following some simple guidelines.
‘If you are outdoors in a stand that is not too crowded then the risk is probably quite low,’ Prof Hunter told Sportsmail.
The most important measure to protect yourself is to have a double vaccination and a booster jab, said the expert.
The risk of transmission increases indoors, particularly in busy bars before or after the match or at half time.
‘Try to avoid queuing in close, packed environments, try not to be in a big crowd especially indoors.’
Arriving early and delaying your departure from the ground helps to avoid queues on stairs and at entry and exit points. Prof Hunter said a mask can reduce the risk of infection by 10 to 20 per cent.
‘There is no silver bullet, everything helps a bit to stop transmission,’ he said.
Professor Paul Hunter has warned a ‘festive firebreak’ won’t work
‘What is driving the pandemic is not football, it is everything around it in the community. Players will still be interacting with their families, their children…’ said Prof Hunter.
‘The risk to football will be greater at the end of a one-week circuit break because of what is going on in the community, because cases are going up quickly.’
‘So, even if you had a circuit break, you would still be cancelling games when you came back.
‘If I was running football… I would play on and cope with the fact you will have to cancel quite a few games in the next six weeks or so,’ said Prof Hunter.
‘[For a circuit break to work] you would have to have a break until [the wave of infection] has subsided in the country and I am assuming that will be by the end of January.’
And the idea of a deep clean of facilities to ‘break the chain’ would have little impact, said Prof Hunter.
Although helpful and good practice, ‘the vast majority of infection is spread by people talking to each other’, or at least being in the same room, he added.
Manchester United’s clash with Brighton on Saturday lunchtime is one of five matches called off this weekend, with the top-flight striking off four matches in one go late on Thursday.
Ralf Rangnick’s United had just seven players available for the weekend visit of the Seagulls and have closed their Carrington training base until Tuesday. The club’s next game after that is a trip to Newcastle on December 27.
Overall, nine matches have been called off due to outbreaks sparked by the Omicron variant, starting from Tottenham’s match with Brighton on December 12 to the five weekend matches called off on Thursday.
But Klopp announced after his Liverpool side’s 3-1 win over Newcastle on Thursday night – which saw Virgil van Dijk, Curtis Jones and Fabinho miss the game due to Covid – that he sees no point of a ‘circuit breaker’ stop.
Klopp told his post-match press conference on Thursday: ‘Stopping the league is probably not the right thing but with the schedule we have to be more flexible. We have three players out because of Covid.
‘Then we play on the 26th and the 28th (of December) and you have 13 players available, that’s not possible. There are plenty of questions we need to find answers for but I don’t have the solution.’
Also urging the Premier League to continue as planed, Parish told BBC Breakfast on Friday: ‘We haven’t had the level of postponements to get a real pause. We would rather get the games over with that we can, while we still can.
Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish (above) believes the Premier League should carry on
‘I would be against that (a firebreaker) right now but we’ll see how things develop. Rules are put in place to fill the squad. There are many reason you can and can’t fill the squad.
‘We are all aware of the situation that is going on, we need to keep our players safe from catching Covid. Obviously it’s unfortunate, we’ve had situations with very key players out and have had to play. It’s the same with injuries.
‘It’s always difficult when you lose where you’re playing important games. But we need to get to get through as many fixtures as we can. And if teams have got a reasonable players to field, then we try and carry on as we can.’
The Bees have 13 cases among players and staff – the club are now calling for a circuit-breaker shutdown to help clubs recover. Their training ground has been closed and as a result their trip to Southampton on Saturday has been postponed.
Would have been without several players for Tottenham’s visit on Thursday due to Covid before the game was postponed – despite initial calls being rejected – hours before kick-off. Their training ground was closed on Thursday morning to contain the outbreak but given they have an insufficient number of players available, their weekend trip to Everton is also off.
Case numbers are currently unknown but a large outbreak saw their game with Brentford postponed. Calls to have Saturday’s game with Brighton to be postponed were accepted on Thursday, and it has emerged that United would have had only seven available players for that game such is the impact of the outbreak. Their training complex is closed until Tuesday at least, in order to reduce the risk of transmission.
Had a request for Wednesday’s game with Wolves to be postponed rejected by the Premier League following an outbreak at the club. Graham Potter confirmed there were ‘three to four’ positive cases before the game, which they lost 1-0. Saturday’s game with Manchester United has now been postponed.
Manager Dean Smith was facing an anxious wait to discover the full extent of the outbreak at the club. Josh Sargent, Lukas Rupp and Pierre Lees-Melou were absent from the squad that faced Aston Villa in midweek for ‘Covid-related’ reasons, but while Christos Tzolis is the only confirmed player to test positive, more positive test results have been returned. The Canaries had discussions with the Premier League over Saturday’s clash with West Ham and it was agreed to postpone as they have an insufficient number of players available.
Saw their midweek game with Burnley postponed just hours before kick-off. With their training ground closed, their home match with Crystal Palace has now been confirmed as postponed too. Case numbers are currently unknown but they do not sufficient players to fulfil the Palace match.
Spurs were the first Premier League club to be hit by the Omicron variant last week and saw games against Brighton and Rennes postponed after cases reached double digits among players and staff. Those who tested positive for the virus are expected to return in the next couple of days after completing their 10-day self-isolation period. Spurs’ clash with Leicester on Thursday was postponed despite initial demands to have the game called off were rejected, but Sunday’s clash with Liverpool is due to go ahead.
After Brentford, the Blues became the latest club to be hit by a Covid outbreak, after it was confirmed ahead of their game with Everton that four more first-team players had tested positive. Mateo Kovacic was the first Chelsea player to get the virus in the outbreak this week, with Romelu Lukaku, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Timo Werner and Ben Chilwell following. Neverthless, their game with Everton went ahead and was drawn. They are due to play Wolves on Sunday.
It was confirmed just an hour before kick-off against Newcastle on Thursday night that Fabinho, Curtis Jones and Virgil van Dijk were all out having tested positive for Covid. They won the game 3-1 and are due to play Tottenham on Sunday.
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