EXCLUSIVE: Premier League clubs REJECT the idea of cancelling a round of Christmas fixtures and will struggle on despite Omicron-driven Covid surge – but WILL review the decision in two weeks
- Premier League football will continue amid a Covid surge among football clubs
- Senior representatives of Premier League clubs have met to discuss Covid
- Under discussion was whether the season should be paused due to pandemic
- 10 top flight matches have been lost to Covid in the last 10 days of the campaign
- Also discussed was how to manage the fallout of outbreaks on players and fans
- Premier League warns clubs they must use U21 players to plug gaps in first team
- And top flight told FA agreed to scrap replays for FA Cup rounds three and four
Premier League clubs have rejected the idea of postponing Christmas matches, despite clubs struggling to fulfil their fixtures because of Covid.
Senior representatives of the top flight’s 20 clubs met with league officials today to consider their latest response to the pandemic, which is now being fuelled by the ultra-infectious Omicron variant.
A short pause, dubbed a ‘festive firebreak, which would have involved postponing a round of fixtures from December 28 to 30, was one of the options under discussion.
The meeting was hastily arranged at the end of last week and came after six of the 10 Premier League fixtures this weekend were postponed following outbreaks for Covid. In total, 10 top-flight matches have been lost to the virus in a little more than a week.
However, despite some managers having spoken out in support of a break, the majority of club’s have backed the league position and rejected the idea, at least for now.
Sportsmail understands that the desire is to carry on and try to battle through without an enforced pause, while enhancing safety measures and incentivising vaccination among players with new measures. A review will be carried out in two weeks.
However, the Premier League is mindful that whatever it decides may change, since the Cabinet is meeting on Monday to discuss whether further restrictions should be imposed due to the spread of Omicron.
Premier League clubs have rejected the idea of postponing Christmas games amid Covid
Newcastle duo Jacob Murphy (L) and Karl Darlow (R) show their Covid passes at St James’ Park
League officials used the meeting to reinforce the rules around postponements. Clubs have complained after some games were called off while others had to go ahead.
The Premier League has made clear to clubs they will be expected to use eligible U21 players to make up the numbers where first-team regulars are ruled out through Covid, injury or illness and also stressed that officials may follow up and investigate.
In addition, the top flight has insisted that non-first-team matches, such as U23 games, should not be scheduled a short-time before a Premier League fixture to ensure the most players are available as possible.
Aston Villa’s U23 side played on Friday night ahead of the Villans’ home game against Burnley, which was postponed only a few hours before kick off on Saturday, following a Covid outbreak. Now, the league has said even in those circumstances an eligible U21 player would be considered available.
At the meeting, clubs were reassured that in order to avoid a fixture pile-up, the FA would scrap replays for FA Cup rounds three and four.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp warned Premier League clubs will need help to continue playing
For a break to come into force it would have needed the support of at least 14 of the 20 top flight sides.
‘It was confirmed at a Premier League club meeting today that while recognising a number of clubs are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and challenges, it is the League’s collective intention to continue the current fixture schedule where safely possible,’ the Premier League announced in a statement on Monday.
‘The health and wellbeing of all concerned remains our priority and the League will continue to monitor and reflect public health guidance, always proceeding with caution.’
The Premier League is in a relatively vulnerable position since the most recent figures before today’s announcement (from October) suggested only 68 per cent of players are double vaccinated, the lowest proportion among the major leagues in Europe.
GAMES POSTPONED SO FAR
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
Aston Villa vs Burnley – Saturday December 18
Watford vs Crystal Palace – Saturday, December 18
West Ham vs Norwich – Saturday, December 18
Everton vs Leicester – Sunday, December 19
However, the top flight said on Monday that: ‘The League also confirmed to its clubs today that 92 per cent of players and club staff have received one, two or three COVID-19 vaccination doses, with 84 per cent of players on the vaccination journey.
‘Players who have had one or two doses are required to wait for the appropriate time period before receiving either their second or booster vaccinations.
‘The League continues to work with clubs to encourage vaccination among players and club staff, as well as promoting the Government’s public-health vaccination messaging to clubs and the wider public.’
Since two jabs and a booster are needed for significant protection against Omicron the chance of the variant spreading once it has penetrated a club’s bubble is increased.
Brentford boss Thomas Frank proposed the idea of ‘circuit-break’ last week in order ‘break the chain’ of infection in clubs after the Bees home game with Manchester United was postponed.
United only had seven players available after an extensive outbreak, which led to the closure of their training ground.
And Newcastle manager Eddie Howe has suggested the season as it stands is ‘on a knife-edge’ and raised the possibility of a pause if it avoided some clubs falling behind in the number of games played, which could impact on the competition.
‘I don’t think we want half the games played and half not played,’ Howe said his side lost 4-0 at home to Manchester City. ‘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.
City manager manager Pep Guardiola said the problem was much bigger than football, but indicated his club would support the Premier League’s position.
Burnley’s Sean Dyche last week questioned the value of a break, given the high levels of infection in the community, which pose an ongoing threat to footballers, just like everyone else. And Steve Parish, the Crystal Palace chairman, supported the continuation of the league.
Public health experts have also told Sportsmail that while Covid – and the Omicron variant – are spreading so rapidly in society a break will be of little value.
When the clubs resumed after any break they would face the same challenge of positive cases and postponed matches until the peak of community infections passed, towards the end of January.
Man City manager Pep Guardiola stressed that the Covid spread was not just football’s issue
Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in public health at the University of East Anglia, said if he ran football he would brace for a chaotic six weeks, but continue.
However, the issue of how to manage outbreaks of Covid – for both players and fans – remains a live one. The conclusion appears to be that the Premier League will rigorously enforce the rules around fielding teams where 14 eligible players are available.
Chelsea manager Tomas Tuchel expressed his disappointment after his Covid-hit side drew 0-0 against Wolves at Molineux. Tuchel said he was ‘angry’ after the Premier League turned down Chelsea’s request to postpone the game.
Consequently, the Blues named just four outfield players on the bench at Molineux. The first XI was competitive but they struggled to create chances as the Blues mini-slump continued.
Chief executive of the Premier League Richard Masters arriving at the organisation’s officers this morning before hosting an online call with clubs to discuss the pandemic
Aston Villa postponed their clash with Burnley after a Covid outbreak just hours before KO
Tuchel said the health and safety of players is being put at ‘huge risk’ by asking them to carry on playing amid rising cases of Covid-19
Jurgen Klopp has also said that clubs will ‘need help’ if they are to play on.
Under the rules, set out in Appendix 17 of the Premier League’s handbook, clubs are expected to consider all eligible players.
Medical opinion will also be taken into account and a game can be called off if an outbreak is considered uncontrolled and could spread rapidly to other members of the squad.
The rules on Covid postponements were outlined at the meeting. Clubs have been asked to ensure U21 players, who have the relevant experience, are available for selection in the event of further positive tests to first team players.
And those on the call and in the room have been warned that when they deemed a player unavailable due to injury the league’s chief medical officer could investigate.
Clubs were told that no postponements would be permitted where 13 outfield players and one goalkeeper from the squad list are available.
Where fewer than 13 plus one are available, the balance can be met by what have been deemed ‘appropriately experienced under 21s’, which could include any U21 player who was started a first team match in the current or preceding season for their current club, previous EFL club or any overseas club in first team competition.
In the case of an U21 goalkeeper, they will have been listed on the team sheet for five or more matches in the preceding 12 months.
Clubs have also been advised that the Premier League board will not consider what they have deemed ‘subjective factors’ such as the quality or experience of available versus unavailable players and whether a team is lacking in a particular position outside of goalkeeper.
Should they deem a player unavailable due to injury the league’s chief medical officer may inquire to ‘confirm status’.
For away games, the travelling party must contain as many available players as possible, with Premier League matches taking priority over non-first team competitions. Should eligible Under 21s have played in such a competition a short time before the Premier League match they will still be deemed available.
Players and staff are now tested every day, using lateral flow tests, at Premier League clubs. In addition, they are tested one day before a match, but these results are only returned on the morning of a game.
The Premier League has held a meeting to discuss the coronavirus situation on Monday
This has led some matches to be postponed at very short notice.
Watford’s match at Burnley on Wednesday night and the Clarets’ trip to Aston Villa on Saturday, were called off little more than two hours before kick off.
In each case, away fans were well into their journeys and had incurred significant expense, in addition to the ticket price.
Meanwhile, there have been 19 games postponed in the EFL. The league has stepped up its efforts to manage Covid, moving to a ‘red protocol’ last week, which brings in daily lateral flow tests and more social distancing. The EFL revealed last week that 25 per cent of players had not been jabbed at all and had no intention of taking the vaccine.
HOW OMICRON COVID OUTBREAKS HAVE THE PREMIER LEAGUE ON EDGE
Mikel Arteta revealed Arsenal had been forced to close their London Colney training ground after reporting a ‘few cases’ among players and staff following their 2-0 victory over West Ham United. Defender Pablo Mari and midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga were among those to test positive and therefore missed the win at Leeds.
Forced to postpone Premier League clash with Burnley on December 18 just two hours before kick-off after an increased amount of positive Covid-19 test results within their playing squad.
The Bees have 13 cases among players and staff – the club are now calling for a circuit-breaker szhutdown 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. Despite recording seven positive Covid cases, the Blues saw a request for their trip to Wolves rejected and Tuchel fumed at the decision to allow the game – which ended 0-0 – to go ahead 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. Midfielder Thiago also tested positive for Covid before Sunday’s trip to Spurs and Jurgen Klopp said it is ‘not possible’ for the Reds to continue playing if more players fall ill.
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