Aston Villa and Sheffield United played out a dull goalless draw as the Premier League made its long-awaited return, in a match memorable for its powerful statements and technology controversy.
As referee Michael Oliver blew his whistle to start the league after a 100-day absence, all players, officials and staff took a knee for 10 seconds to symbolise the ongoing ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
When the game finally got away, amid the anticipation, the excitement and the build-up to English football’s return, the two teams failed to match the climax at a largely soulless Villa Park.
The most controversial talking point came minutes before half-time, when Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland seemingly fumbled Norwood’s cross over his goal line – but a goal was not given.
To the naked eye, the ball went over the line. To the world of football watching, the ball went over the line. But referee Oliver’s watch – which would usually be alerted if the ball crosses the goal line – did not signal a goal, despite United players swarming the referee with bemused looks etched across their faces.
It was a pivotal moment in a game which lacked any real quality or excitement. This was not for the lack of endeavour or work ethic, but perhaps the lack of action the players have had over the course of the pandemic.
Villa, who lost five games in a row prior to the season’s halt, started the game the brighter, with Conor Hourihane and John McGinn both testing Dean Henderson within the first half an hour.
As the two promoted sides adapted to playing a behind-closed-doors match for the first time, the hosts carried the greater threat after the break as Grealish teed up McGinn to shoot from distance, but Henderson was equal to the shot.
It was two points lost rather than a point gained for the team from the Second City, who missed the chance to climb out of the bottom three.
For the Blades, they remain behind Chelsea in fourth, with the gap narrowed to just four points. They had won six out of seven prior to lockdown but failed to find their higher gears here.
The Blades missed key defender Jack O’Connell, whose overlapping runs and forward-thinking play was missed. Jack Robinson, who was signed from Nottingham Forest in January, came in for the Liverpudlian but his conservative approach was patent.
As the game wore on and the mid-June heat began to sap the players’ legs, the energy and entertainment we were used to before lockdown quickly dissipated: passes started to drift, tactical tackles started to occur, attacks broke down all too easily.
Both managers then turned to their substitutes bench in the 69th minute, where teams are now allowed up to five per game to cope with fitness issues. But this didn’t ignite any fresh energy into the match, with both teams having to settle for a clean sheet and a point.
There was a sense of relief, though, as domestic football returned, with many games to be broadcasted on free television.
Aston Villa: Nyland, Konsa, Hause, Mings, Targett, McGinn (Nakamba 76’), Luiz, Hourinhane, Grealish, El Ghazi (Trezeguet 69’), Davis (Samatta 69’).
Unused: Taylor, Bastón, Jota, Reina, Vassilev.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Baldock, Basham, Egan, Robinson, Stevens, Norwood, Lundstram, Berge (Freeman 69), Sharp (McGoldrick 69’), McBurnie (Mousset 80’).
Unused: Jagielka, K. Freeman, Osborn, Clarke, Moore, Rodwell.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Image: Ben Sutherland