The wait is nearly over, and now there is a job to be done as the belated and busy conclusion to the 2019/20 season begins with a visit to Villa Park. Chelsea historian Rick Glanvill and club statistican Paul Dutton have bided their time, and are ready for our first ever competitive game in June…
The deadly virus is still among us but the snakes and ladders of the season are yet to be landed upon. The destination of the title, the European qualification places, and the relegation berths remain unclaimed. The situation is unprecedented: the previous longest gameless gap in a top-flight English season was 20 days during the ‘big freeze’ of 1963.
And now, after the longest day of the year, comes the swiftest close to a season: 92 Premier League games to be completed over just 40 days, played in echo chamber arenas with the 12th man absent. It is a peculiar world of socially-distanced dressing rooms, sterile environments, staggered walk-outs, PPE-covered physios, non-contact celebrations, and no remonstrations to officials.
Yet, starting with this 50th Premier League match against Aston Villa, Chelsea face a nine-match tournament of 20 versus 20 in which a string of the same result could have a huge effect on the final outcomes.
Most critically, no supporters will be admitted to any stadium. For once, ‘you’re supposed to be at home’ is not mockery but fact. All locations including Stamford Bridge will be closed to the public, and the threat remains that clubs will be forced to play at neutral venues should supporters defy the guidelines and congregate in nearby streets.
All of this will be slightly less hard to bear because of the extended TV and radio coverage announced, and Blues supporters can follow games on this website and our social media accounts, as well as the 5th Stand app.
The latest in a season a Chelsea player has scored a competitive goal is 30 May – Frank Lampard’s 72nd-minute winner in the 2009 FA Cup final against Everton.
— Key Stat
So, where were we, 105 days ago? Hosts Villa had lost their fourth on the spin, while Chelsea were in arguably the best form of the season just prior to the closedown, taming and toppling Liverpool 2-0 in the FA Cup, then thrashing their neighbours Everton 4-0 in the league.
Extended: Chelsea 4-0 Everton (H) - Premier League Highlights
Extended highlights from our Premier League match v Everton at Stamford Bridge.
That was despite Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Christian Pulisic being sidelined. All are now back and raring to go as - for the first time - Frank Lampard has pretty much a full squad from which to pick.
Especially welcome back will be Loftus-Cheek’s power and cleverness in the opposition half. Before suffering a ruptured achilles in a friendly game ahead of the 2019 Europa League final, he had contributed six league goals and two assists.
Those central midfield absences in March had allowed Billy Gilmour to step in and wow everyone with mature, high-intensity displays against the Merseyside teams, and Ross Barkley had hit a streak of form, scoring one goal and setting up two. Marcos Alonso was also flourishing, netting three goals in two league games as part of a new 3-4-3 system, before switching from wing-back to left-back in a reversion to 4-3-3 for the rout of the Toffees.
Across all domestic competitions, defenders had accounted for seven of the 10 goals scored in our previous five games, but the four against Carlo Ancelotti’s side were scored by forwards.
Kepa Arrizabalaga, whose pitch between the sticks had been occupied by Willy Caballero for several outings, roared back with an excellent display against Jurgen Klopp’s team and another clean sheet against the blue half of Merseyside.
Challenging schedule ahead
In line with tradition, it is planned that the Premier League season will draw to a close on Sunday 26 July, the weekend before the FA Cup final. That means Chelsea’s remaining nine league fixtures will take place in 36 days.
Before the restart The Athletic worked out that Chelsea had the fifth-shortest journey distance remaining in league and cup at 1153 miles, almost half of the 2231 faced by rivals for a top four place, Manchester United.
Dawn-to-dusk armchair football
The rhythm of the run-in will also be very different this season, with lots of new start times.
New daily kick-off slots (all UK time)
Tue-Thu 6pm, 8pm, 8.15pm
Saturday 12.30pm, 3pm, 5.30pm, 7.45pm, 8pm
Sunday 12pm, 2pm, 4.30pm, 7pm
In an unprecedented move, all will be covered live on Sky Sports, BT Sport, BBC Sport and Amazon, with two matches shown simultaneously on rival platforms in some instances.
Broadcasters showing the games live
Sky Sports 64 (25 free-to-view on Sky Pick)
BT Sport 20 (0)
BBC 4 (4 on TV and online)
Amazon Prime 4 (4 on Twitch Prime)
A third of the fixtures will be available without subscription charge on Sky Sports’ Pick channel (channel 144 on Freeview, 159 on Sky), Amazon Prime (through streaming community channel Twitch Prime), and, for the first time in the top flight since 1992, the BBC. (Fans outside the UK should click here for regional information.)
Stamford Bridge season ticket-holders who are not Sky Sports subscribers can also take up the club’s offer of two free day-passes to Now TV, with details here.
Between them, BBC radio and talkSport will also provide audio commentaries of every game.
Playing the Villans
Of Chelsea’s nine remaining league opponents, four are in the top seven, one mid-table, and four threatened with relegation, including this weekend’s opponents.
Aston Villa are actually nine points better off than at the same stage in 2016 when they last suffered the drop. Most analysts believe 36 points will be the magic number (for the third season running) to maintain top-flight status. If so, Villa need 10 points from the last nine matches.
That 2016 trip to the second city ended 4-0 to the Blues, with a 20-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek netting his first league goal for the club. Villa are Chelsea’s third favourite Premier League victims, the 25 wins recorded over them bettered only against Spurs (30) and Everton (26).
In fact, the Blues have beaten the Villans in nine of the past 10 top-flight meetings, including an 8-0 in 2012 that featured seven different scorers (including present head coach Frank Lampard). That remains their heaviest ever defeat at this level, and they have the worst goals-against record in the league this season.
The return of John McGinn could alleviate some of the pressure on Jack Grealish to defend, but head coach Dean Smith said he will carefully manage the box-to-box midfielder’s return, and he played 76 minutes in midweek. In the absence through injury of Wesley, the usual lone striker in their 4-1-4-1 line-up, January signing Mbwana Samatta had netted twice in all competitions before lockdown. That said, 22-year-old Keinan Davis was given the nod against the Blades.
Should Smith decide that inexperienced goalkeeper Orjan Nyland got away with daylight robbery when the goal-line technology had a bit of a ‘Barnard Castle’ during Wednesday’s 0-0, Pepe Reina, now 37, make take over while no.1 choice Tom Heaton recuperates.
Form temporary, class permanent?
Among the top four clubs, only Liverpool had been in top form over the six matches prior to the Covid-19 clampdown. Third-placed Leicester had earned eight points from a possible 18, Manchester City 10 (second), and Chelsea (in fourth) a point fewer, though unbeaten in three.
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The Premier League has taken advantage of a change agreed by the game’s overall lawmakers, International Football Association Board (IFAB), who have permitted five substitutes to be made in batches of up to three, with nine potential replacements allowed on the bench.
IFAB acted because ‘matches may be played in a condensed period [and] in different weather conditions, both of which could have impacts on player welfare.’ As well as five substitutions, Premier League matches will have brief drinks breaks midway through each half.
Chelsea’s 18-year-old Armando Broja entered the fray for the first time in the last outing before lockdown. He, Henry Lawrence, Lewis Bate, and Tino Anjorin, who has just signed a long-term contract, have been training with the first team in the past few weeks, and we may see more of them over a very demanding schedule.
Villa boss Smith - who matched Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for transfer spending after achieving promotion - has complained the change ‘helps clubs with bigger squads.’ However, two Arsenal players succumbed to muscle injuries on Wednesday.
Some pre-lockdown problems have not resolved themselves. Jorginho earned a two-match suspension for accruing 10 yellows at the end of February, would have served the second against Villa back in March, and will do so this weekend.
Holte End hushed
Villa Park may not have been the most intimidating cauldron in the top flight - they already had the fourth worst home record in the league - but passionate, intimidating support can influence key moments during a run-in.
Players can feed off or be consumed by a crowd (especially wingers and full-backs), and silent, soulless stadiums could become concentration vacuums, especially for mid-table teams with nothing to play for.
‘Teams with a high level of technical quality...are less dependent on support,’ Eintracht Frankfurt head coach Adi Huetter noted last week, ‘This disadvantages some teams more than others.’
Since the Bundesliga restarted with ‘geisterspiele’ (ghost games) in empty arenas, fewer home clubs have upset the form guide, and away teams have doubled their usual win rate from 21 per cent of matches to 43 per cent. Roughly the same trend has been observed in behind-closed-doors matches in Czech Republic, Estonia, and elsewhere.
Messages on restart shirts
The Premier League has supported the players’ request to replace each of their names in support of the Black Lives Matter movement for the initial round of matches after restart. You can see how this will look on Chelsea shirts here. The jerseys will also sport a separate message honouring NHS workers who have carried out life-saving work during the current pandemic.
Chelsea add NHS & Black Lives Matter logos to matchday shirts
Filmed by our kit staff at Cobham, Chelsea FC are proud to add the Black Lives Matter and NHS logos onto their matchday shirts. These shirts will be worn v Aston Villa in the Premier League on Sunday.
Premier League fixtures
Norwich v Southampton 6pm (Sky Sports)
Tottenham v Manchester United 8.15pm (Sky Sports)
Watford v Leicester 12.30pm (BT Sport)
Brighton v Arsenal 3pm (BT Sport)
West Ham v Wolves 5.30pm (Sky Sports)
Bournemouth v Crystal Palace 7.45pm (BBC One)
Newcastle v Sheffield United 2pm (Sky Sports)
Aston Villa v Chelsea 4.15pm (Sky Sports)
Everton v Liverpool 7pm (Sky Sports)
Manchester City v Burnley 8pm (Sky Sports)
Leicester v Brighton 6pm (Sky Sports)
Tottenham v West Ham 8.15pm (Sky Sports)