From no football to wall-to-wall football. Barely have we finished beating Aston Villa up at Villa Park than we’re getting ready to welcome Manchester City to Stamford Bridge in tonight’s critical eight-fifteener. For the fans, obliged to watch all this from the privacy of our sitting rooms after three long months of inactivity, it’s a dizzying turn-around. Why, we’ve barely had time to plump the cushions.
Still, we’ll rise to the challenge, I’m sure, just as we have risen to all the challenges presented by this extraordinary period in our history, and just as the players certainly rose to it in that energised and altogether commendable performance last Sunday.
I’ll be selecting the ‘with crowd’ option again tonight, just as I did on Sunday, in the belief that football without a crowd (even a canned one) is essentially a game in a park. At the same time, I’ll be looking for improvements. The Villa fans were in good voice on Sky’s fake feed at the weekend, whereas I felt our pre-recorded contribution to the hubbub from the away end was a little under-played and low in the mix. Here’s hoping that gets put right tonight.
Will there be an award at the end of the season for ‘Best Virtual Atmosphere’? And for ‘Best Virtual Away Support’? Would be nice to think the Bridge and our travelling virtual supporters were in the running if so.
It would also be nice, I’m sure, to be a mid-table side at the moment, like Burnley or Arsenal, and able to regard this entire made-for-television phase as an unusually elaborate pre-season tournament – a harmless bit of diversion for the summer months, rather like the old Evening Standard London 5-a-sides.
But sadly we don’t have that luxury. We are one of a handful of clubs for whom this oddly artificial add-on has real-world implications. Our fault for being a permanently competitive force, I guess.
As such, I would argue that there was no point taking a liberal view of tonight’s match against Manchester City. True, it lies in our power this evening to confirm Liverpool’s first Premiership title since British households switched from gas-light to electric. Merseyside prepares to celebrate – albeit at home and on Skype – and we can play kingmaker again, much as we did for Leicester on that golden night at the Bridge in 2016 when Eden Hazard crashed it in from distance, although, of course, that was much more fun in the circumstances, not least for the fact that some of us were actually in the ground when it happened.
And accordingly, by extension, a few among us would no doubt argue that there were consolations readily available to us in the event that City (eight goals and six points in their two post-lockdown fixtures so far) spend the evening continuing as they started.
Let’s not even go there. For one thing, it’s over. The destination of the league title is unfortunately, as it has been since February, a flat and foregone conclusion. Fun though it was, after the utter blankness of the Merseyside derby (and one has had glasses of water that were more memorable than that particular Project Restart football match) to entertain the possibility that Liverpool might yet embark upon a nine-game choke (Project No Start), it was always too big an ask. Or rather too big a choke. Not even Devon Loch would have lost the league from this position.
And anyway, we need to set all thoughts of that aside, and concentrate on what is still, by contrast, very much a live issue: our position in the top four. We’re operating in a bubble now. No other consequences matter – only points. Three more tonight, let’s hope. Third place, after all, has begun to look highly achievable.
On the subject of awards, by the way, we already have a contender for ‘Best Stat of the Restart Period’. I know we’re all finding ways to make this period as interesting as we can, but the BBC website really went the extra mile in that department by carefully pointing out that, during West Ham’s game against Tottenham, ‘Tomas Soucek became the fourth Czech player to score a Premier League own goal.’
Are you getting a reaction there? I’ve got to say I’m struggling a little. Now, if he’d been the 49th Czech player to score an own goal in the Premier League, we might have had something to talk about. Actually, with a little bit of nudging, we might even have had a conspiracy theory on our hands. Similarly, if he’d been the first, one might have seen the point in marking the moment.
But seeing as he was merely the fourth, which is neither the first nor really anything, one had to conclude that it was hard to feel very much about it either way – except, of course, for acknowledging that, at the moment, West Ham fans should probably be grateful for any kind of goals, whoever scores them, wherever they come from and at whichever end of the pitch they do it.