Premier League restarts as players take knee

The Premier League resumed on Wednesday after a three-month hiatus, with Aston Villa and Sheffield United players taking a knee to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Coronavirus restrictions mean the drama is being played out with no fans in the stands but football-starved supporters will be able to feast on 92 televised games crammed into less than six weeks.

Defeat for Manchester City, who host Arsenal later on Wednesday would leave Liverpool on the brink of their first English top-flight title for 30 years.

But Aston Villa and Sheffield United kicked off the return in Birmingham.

In front of a huge global audience, players and staff protested racial injustice in solidarity with the worldwide protests following the death of American George Floyd while in police custody.

"Aston Villa and Sheffield United were proud to stand in solidarity with the actions of the players and coaching staff of both football clubs," the clubs said in a joint statement.

"In the first Premier League fixture of Project Restart both clubs hope that the act of 'taking a knee' will send a strong message of unity and amplify the many messages of support from Premier League players and the wider football family," they added.

All players will wear Black Lives Matter (BLM) on the back of their shirts where names are normally printed for the first 12 matches of the restart.

A BLM logo will feature on shirts for the remainder of the season along with a badge thanking Britain's health workers for their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

- Empty stands -

Should Manchester City lose to Arsenal at the Etihad, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, who hold a 25-point lead at the top of the table, could be crowned champions as early as Sunday when they face local rivals Everton.

Despite concerns over fans congregating around stadiums, clubs won the battle to host matches in their home grounds.

Liverpool can win a long-awaited title in their own city, either at Goodison, or when the Reds host Crystal Palace at Anfield on Wednesday.

But Klopp stressed the need for supporters to stay at home.

"Stay safe, support us from home. We are still with you and you'll never walk alone," he said.

The battle for Champions League places next season and to avoid the drop are far more closely contested.

Both are in play at Villa Park as the hosts kicked off second bottom of the table, while victory for Sheffield United would lift the Blades into fifth.

- Personal tragedies -

Matches will be preceded by a minute's silence in memory of those who have died from coronavirus. Britain is the worst-hit country in Europe with more than 41,000 deaths.

Three of the four managers to lead their sides on Wednesday have been touched by the virus.

Aston Villa boss Dean Smith's father died, while City manager Pep Guardiola lost his mother.

"What I live personally is the same as everyone lives. There is nothing different," said Guardiola.

"For all the people who lost very important members of their families or real friends, it has been a difficult time."

Guardiola's former assistant Mikel Arteta returns to the Etihad for the first time as Arsenal manager three months after his positive test for coronavirus hastened the season shutdown.

"We made the right call and the right decision and the authorities and the Premier League were really strong on that," said Arteta. "It could have been much worse."

- 'Odd experience' -

With all games being played behind closed doors, players will have to get used to the eerie silence in the usually raucous stands.

Piping crowd chants into stadiums, cardboard cut-outs of supporters and live video fan walls will add colour but the Premier League's chief executive Richard Masters admitted there would be something missing without crowds.

"It is going to be an odd experience without fans at the stadia," he said. "The Premier League won't be back with a capital 'B' until fans are back."

Just 300 people will be allowed in stadiums for each match, with strict health protocols in place.

There will be widespread disinfection of changing facilities, dugouts, matchballs, goalposts, corner flags and substitution boards.

People other than players and coaching staff on team benches must wear face coverings.

Players have been told to maintain social-distancing during goal celebrations and are banned from spitting.