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Premier League must return so fans are not denied a classic relegation battle

The Independent logo The Independent 26/03/2020 Alex Pattle
a group of young men playing a game of football © Provided by The Independent

If we are to be denied an ending to the Premier League season, one thing we won’t be denied is a classic finish to a top-flight title race.

Liverpool already made sure of that throughout the campaign with their metronomic wins, and whether or not you believe Jurgen Klopp’s side deserve to be awarded the title – whether or not you think the word ‘awarded’ is fair – one thing cannot be argued: There was never even a title race to begin with.

So in that regard, the neutral fan would be denied very little if the Premier League were to be voided now. But look a little lower – quite a bit lower, actually – and the greatest potential loss is at once visible.

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West Ham, Watford and Bournemouth are Premier League equals, owning 27 points apiece with nine games remaining, with Eddie Howe’s team consigned to the relegation zone by the slightest of goal differences. Aston Villa, whose run to the Carabao Cup final served as somewhat of a distraction from their league form, are just two points inferior with a game in hand. Norwich, who have long since been written off, are bottom, but actually just two wins from catching the Hammers, Hornets and Cherries. Meanwhile, Brighton’s 29 points still do not see them safe from a scrap.

It feels strange to have written the above in the present tense, as though the season is sure to see its conclusion. That is far from a certainty, which is the point here. The saving grace in a season without a title race was set to be the dogfight in the Premier League’s dingy basement, with the afore-mentioned six teams all looking too poor to stay up.

Often, that lack of quality is what makes for the most exhilarating endings.

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West Ham were evidence of this in 2007. The east London club straggled and suffered through their sorry season, but one man in claret and blue was unfazed.

The only thing more baffling than Carlos Tevez’s arrival at the club at the start of the campaign was the fact that West Ham managed to stay up, with a final-day trip to Old Trafford seemingly a death sentence on their Premier League status. But Tevez was the difference, dragging West Ham to victory in Manchester before departing for the city later that summer, and dragging his team-mates from the relegation pit as the flames of the Championship licked at their heels.

Do they need a Tevez this season? Would they have? The question is as difficult as determining the tense in which to write it amid the current uncertainty. Assuming the season is finished, West Ham will have to play three of their relegation rivals – Watford, Villa and Norwich – and in fact travel to Old Trafford in their penultimate fixture of the term.

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Norwich, meanwhile, whose Teemu Pukki could prove their own Tevez if he is given the opportunity to mirror his early season form in the closing games, should also face Watford and Brighton, as well as formidable tests at Manchester City and Chelsea.

Bournemouth are set on perhaps the most treacherous path, with City, United, Leicester and Wolves all lying in wait.

All of these clashes are tantalising, with drama and despair guaranteed – high percentages of completed passes from the relegation-threatened sides are not.

a man standing in front of a crowd of people watching a football game: Carlos Tevez rescued West Ham in the 2006-07 Premier League season (Getty Images) © Provided by The Independent Carlos Tevez rescued West Ham in the 2006-07 Premier League season (Getty Images)

Whether potential six-pointers against fellow teams on borrowed time or ostensibly insurmountable challenges against those figuratively sporting Rolexes, these are the ties that define relegation battles and Premier League seasons in general, regardless of what is happening at the summit.

We can only hope for the resumption of the Premier League campaign, so that we are not denied the possibility of a great escape a la West Ham in 2007, or Sunderland in 2014. That year, Gus Poyet’s side achieved stunning wins over Chelsea and United, as well as a draw against City, as the curtain began to close on the campaign. In doing so, they entered “Wearside folklore”, as Poyet put it.

Then there was the unlikeliest of survivals from Leicester a year later – one year before their unlikeliest of triumphs. Seemingly nailed to the bottom of the table, 10 points adrift with seven games to go, Nigel Pearson’s Foxes somehow started a surge that would see them rise to 14th. It was a surge that would continue into their historic following season.

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Wigan’s shocking survival in 2012 is also inextricably linked to any memories of the best the worst have to offer. Wigan were led by Roberto Martinez, whose proclivity for procuring assaultive attacks was matched only by his generosity in aiding other teams’ goal differences, but ultimately the former trumped the latter.

If this season is disregarded, questions around Liverpool’s status as champions-in-waiting will drown us all, as should furore over what an incomplete season would mean for the bottom three of Bournemouth, Villa and Norwich.

But the cruelty of denying those clubs an opportunity to fight for their safety is almost matched by the unfairness of denying us a ticket to see it.

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