The Premier League has been severely disrupted over the hectic festive period by a wave of new Covid-19 cases, handing a host of clubs a selection dilemma and top-flight chiefs a headache with several fixtures having been postponed.
Omicron, the ultra-infectious new variant, has wreaked havoc across the football calendar in recent weeks, with infections rising at alarming rates. As a result, there are teams who find themselves with as many as three games in hand.
Boxing Day’s blockbuster line-up of matches was almost decimated by the virus, after three were called off – namely Liverpool’s clash with Leeds, Wolves’ showdown with Watford and Everton’s trip to Burnley.
Crystal Palace also requested for their tie at Tottenham to be postponed but were unsuccessful, with Sportsmail understanding their application was sent in the early morning, just hours before kick-off in north London.
Here, Sportsmail takes a look at the alarming state of coronavirus in the division.
Steven Gerrard tested positive for Covid-19, with the Premier League gripped by virus chaos
Crystal Palace looked to get their game at Tottenham postponed, but suffered a 3-0 defeat
How was Boxing Day affected?
Out of the nine Premier League fixtures pencilled in for yesterday, just six of them went ahead. For several hours at least, it looked set to be five, before the Premier League turned down Palace’s application for a postponement of their own.
Liverpool vs Leeds, scheduled for a 12.30 kick-off, fell victim to the backlog, after the visitors revealed five new positive Covid-19 cases within their first-team and staff. They were even forced to close their training ground at Thorp Arch for two days.
There has been an impressive vaccination take-up at the club, with those who have contracted the virus described as ‘asymptomatic’. However, in their absence, Leeds would not have had enough recognised first-team names to fulfil the game.
Wolves’ clash with Watford at Molineux also suffered the same fate. Again, it was the travelling side who requested the postponement, which came after their matches against Burnley and Crystal Palace were also called off due to their outbreak.
Leeds’ trip to Liverpool was called off on Boxing Day, with Marcelo Bielsa’s side hit by positives
BOXING DAY CHAOS
Liverpool vs Leeds – 12.30pm – postponed
Wolves vs Watford – 12.30pm – postponed
Burnley vs Everton – 3pm – postponed
Man City vs Leicester – 3pm
Norwich vs Arsenal – 3pm
Tottenham vs Crystal Palace – 3pm
West Ham vs Southampton – 3pm
Aston Villa vs Chelsea – 5.30pm
Brighton vs Brentford – 8pm
Burnley’s game against Everton is the third set to be played at a later date. The Premier League initially rejected the Toffees’ application to have the match called off, but eventually reconsidered ‘following further injuries to the squad’.
That left six match-ups standing, with Manchester City scoring six against Leicester the pick of the action. Elsewhere, Arsenal thumped Norwich, Tottenham eased beyond Crystal Palace and Chelsea got back on track by beating Aston Villa.
Leicester have struggled with mounting Covid cases, but are now returning to full-strength with a host of players returning from injury and self-isolation. Earlier this month, they called a brief halt to first-team operations at their training ground.
Norwich manager Dean Smith confirmed that his side were handed fresh coronavirus cases in their camp ahead of their clash against Arsenal.
Another round of PCR tests were carried out the night before the game, which went ahead at Carrow Road.
Palace were without manager Patrick Vieira, with his No 2, Osian Roberts, taking to the touchline instead.
Manchester City beat Leicester 6-3 in the pick of the action on the disrupted festive fixture list
Michail Antonio returned for West Ham in their defeat by Southampton at the London Stadium, while the visitors were without Nathan Tella, Jack Stephens and Lyanco due to Covid-19. It is not common for clubs to reveal their virus absentees.
Steven Gerrard became the second Premier League manager missing from the dugout on Boxing Day, after he too tested positive. That development forced him to watch from home as his Aston Villa side were defeated 3-1 by Chelsea.
Brighton welcomed back several players from Covid and injury for their clash against Brentford, which came after an 11-day break following their loss to Wolves. The Bees suffered an outbreak last week, but fielded a strong side in their 2-0 loss.
What about the next games?
There have already been two postponements from tomorrow’s Premier League fixture list. Leeds vs Aston Villa and Arsenal vs Wolves will be played at a later date, leaving eight games remaining across the next three days of action.
Tomorrow, Southampton welcome Tottenham, Watford entertain West Ham, Crystal Palace re-enter battle without boss Vieira against Norwich and Liverpool travel to Leicester. As of now, each of these matches will go ahead as scheduled.
Arsenal beat Norwich at Carrow Road last time, but their clash against Wolves was called off
THE MID-WEEK ACTION
Tuesday 28 December:
Leeds vs Aston Villa – postponed
Arsenal vs Wolves – postponed
Southampton vs Tottenham
Watford vs West Ham
Crystal Palace vs Norwich
Leicester vs Liverpool
Wednesday 29 December:
Chelsea vs Brighton
Brentford vs Manchester City
Thursday 30 December:
Everton vs Newcastle
Manchester United vs Burnley
Covid’s ever-changing nature means this is far from a certainty, however, and clubs will be wary of fresh cases tonight and tomorrow morning.
The current situation at both Southampton and Spurs is likely to see their game played, and the expectation is that Watford will play West Ham after a lengthy break.
Crystal Palace could fear new positive results after losing a host of first-team players for their loss at Tottenham – but, unless any outbreak is significant, the Premier League may once again be keen to ensure the side fulfil this fixture.
Norwich, Leicester and Liverpool look to be in a healthier position after being hit by the virus and, as it stands, will also contest their matches tomorrow.
On Wednesday, Chelsea play Brighton at Stamford Bridge and Manchester City travel to Brentford. Again, these fixtures are expected to go ahead, barring any late changes in the Covid situation at each of the respective clubs.
The mid-week action is rounded off by two games on Thursday – with Everton to face Newcastle and Manchester United set to host Burnley.
Whether the Toffees can fulfil this game will depend on players returning, while United are in a strong position.
Manchester United are three games behind their top four rivals, and take on Newcastle today
One major boost for clubs came after the period of isolation was cut by ministers.
Health chiefs announced that those with a positive Covid test can be released after seven days, rather than 10, provided they test negative on days six and seven.
This will allow players to return to action faster than before during the pandemic, meaning those who were absent recently may be edging closer to a speedy return.
Who is playing catch up?
Just a quick glance up and down the Premier League table reveals a bizarre state of affairs, with some lucky clubs on top of their fixtures while others trail behind them.
The top four have played 19 games each, apart from Liverpool – who have 18 matches so far. Below these spots, Tottenham have contested just 16, the same number as Manchester United in seventh and Watford down in 17th.
It is Burnley who have been affected the most, however. Sean Dyche’s side have played only 15 games, leaving them with a difficult talk as they look to climb out of the relegation zone. Currently, though, they are two points from safety.
Over the following weeks and months, the top-flight chiefs will look to ensure that every postponed game is played. But with the pandemic still raging around the world, there will be plenty more fixture headaches to come before the season is out.
Burnley, managed by Sean Dyche, have been hit the worst, having played 15 games this season
FULL LIST OF PL POSTPONEMENTS
Brighton vs Tottenham
Brentford vs Manchester Utd
Burnley vs Watford
Leicester vs Tottenham
Manchester Utd vs Brighton
Southampton vs Brentford
Watford vs Crystal Palace
West Ham vs Norwich
Everton vs Leicester
Aston Villa vs Burnley
Liverpool vs Leeds
Wolves vs Watford
Everton vs Burnley
Leeds vs Aston Villa
Arsenal vs Wolves