There’s no pretending this never happened. No matter how the remainder of the European club season is reformatted, assuming it ever gets played, there will be an asterisk behind this season. That’s true even if the postponed games are all made up, somehow, and the outstanding ones are played too.
It feels like an awful lot longer, but the Premier League has only been shut down for two weeks. Serie A was the first league to postpone games, rescheduling five games on Feb. 29. Eventually, everybody followed. Well, everybody except Belarus, whose dictator thinks coronavirus is a “psychosis” that can be treated with vodka.
Realistically, this layoff will run at least another month or so, meaning every major European league will have been inactive for at least a month and a half. In a lot of countries, that’s almost as long a break as the offseason in the summer.
And as much as you might like to think it won’t, that will play a significant factor in how the rest of the season* plays out.
Remember Tottenham Hotspur’s dire injury crisis up front, all but dooming its campaign to get back to the Champions League places? By the time the league resumes, that will be over. Harry Kane was slated to return April 1. Son Heung-min is due back April 30, the very day the league is currently planning to kick off again – although that seems optimistic. A big reset and something of a truncated preseason to work back to full fitness – as all managers are clamoring for and will likely be granted – is surely just what Spurs needed.
Conversely, Manchester United had finally – finally – gotten its season on the rails with an 11-match unbeaten run, climbing into that coveted fifth place in the Premier League and its attendant Champions League berth. But that momentum has now been stifled, if not altogether lost.
In Spain, likewise, the close title race between Barcelona and Real Madrid could be altered significantly by the layoff. Eden Hazard, whose maiden season with Real has been tormented by injuries, is expected back by the end of May. Luis Suarez, whose knee surgery sent alarm bells ringing in Catalonia, might return for Barca as soon as the season resumes, significantly alleviating Quique Setien’s striker problem.
This return will only serve to compound the farcical rule that allowed Barcelona to plunder relegation-battling Leganes for its best player, forward Martin Braithwaite, outside of the transfer window on account of its injury crisis, while Leganes was not allowed to sign a replacement.
In Italy, Lazio’s searing run of 21 games without defeat had finally propelled it past a slumping Inter Milan and into the title race, trailing Juventus by just a point. But the pandemic put a stop to that as well, essentially freezing the competition at an apparent tipping point in a captivating struggle to prevent a ninth consecutive crown for Juventus.
There are countless examples in other nations, in other leagues, but the point is the same in all of them.
The long layoff will change these leagues in profound ways, to say nothing of the economic impact and the new way we will move through modern life when this is all over. That makes it nearly impossible to count this soccer season as just another campaign, even if every last one of the games is made up.
There is an asterisk there regardless. Which isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of whoever wins the improvised conclusion to the leagues. Liverpool deserves every bit of its first title in 30 years – presumably. If Juve survives the challenges from Inter and Lazio, its ninth straight title will only be right and legitimate. The same goes for whoever wins out in Spain. Or who emerges on top of the tangle of teams in Germany or the Netherlands, where uncommonly tight races are (or were) taking place.
The titles will count like any other, but there’s no use in treating this season as anything but the unprecedented outlier that it is. Because it is, in essence, two separate seasons. With two preseasons and two standalone narratives. One pre-coronavirus and one post. They are simply combined to hand out one championship, one bunch of tickets to the continental competitions, and appoint one set of relegations and promotions.
No matter when the leagues resume, they will be entirely new campaigns, even if the results will look largely the same in the history books – with an added bit of punctuation.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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