Words: Rahul Warrier
Momentum is a strange thing in football.
In March, Sheffield United were flying high in the Premier League in 7th place. They were two points off 5th-placed Manchester United, but with a crucial game in hand. They were unbeaten in four league games, and had lost just three of the past 13 games (all three against the top two). With a difficult final seven games remaining, the momentum built up could have helped them in the fight for the European spots. But then the pandemic hit.
After being held 0-0 by Aston Villa in unfortunate circumstances, the Blades put in arguably their worst performance of the season against Newcastle United, losing 3-0. They were then brushed aside by Manchester United, a direct rival in the hunt for European football. It leaves them in a tricky position, as their final seven fixtures pit them against more sides with top eight ambitions. Before the break, they would have been more positive about their chances of gaining positive results at home against Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea. As it stands, things look more difficult.
Loanees Muhamed Besic and Panagiotis Retsos have returned to their parent clubs, leaving the defence lacking in quality depth. Key defender Jack O’Connell is also struggling with an injury that he sustained on the eve of the Blades’ return to action. Sheffield United still have their fate in their hands, but they’ll have to find solutions quickly.
On the other side of the spectrum lie Tottenham Hotspur. The three-month break allowed them a sorely-needed pause. Winless in six games across all competitions, their last game before the break saw them lose 3-0 in Leipzig. The break did, however, allow injured forwards Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son to recover. A 1-1 draw against Manchester United was a fair result, and a blessing given the same game three months ago might have produced an unfavourable result. Tottenham are now 7th, and are in a stronger position to push their rivals close.
The first few games back will act as a competitive pre-season for players, which is why teams will have to hit the ground running. At the same time, some teams have contracts ending at the end of June, providing additional problems. Chelsea might lose wingers Willian and Pedro, but are equipped to handle their loss over the next eight games. They have a favourable five-game run to secure their Champions League status before difficult games against Liverpool and Wolves.
Elsewhere in London, Arsenal have decisions to make on the loan deals of Pablo Mari, Cedric Soares and Dani Ceballos, the former two of whom are injured. David Luiz, a big reason for the loss to Manchester City, is at the heart of another major decision: to keep, extend or let go.
Largely, clubs with greater depth, a favourable fixture list and returning players from injury are well-placed to make a run for Europe. That means Manchester United, who have key players Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba back from injuries that were initially nearly season-ending. The Red Devils’ last seven fixtures, barring a clash with Leicester City, are all straightforward on paper. They control their own fate.
Ultimately, the three-month break might have just made it more difficult for the chasing pack. Only time will tell, but it will not be a surprise if the top five has not changed come the end of the season.