As the Premier League returned, some things, at least, felt very familiar.
There was a refereeing/technology controversy in the early game between Aston Villa and Sheffield United. In the later game there was Manchester City, passing the ball slickly and quite simply being very good. There was Arsenal struggling to compete against a top-six side away from home. There was David Luiz, making mistakes and being sent off. The result of the scoreless draw at Villa Park and the 3-0 Man City win at the Etihad is that Aston Villa is still in the relegation zone, Sheffield United is still sixth and Liverpool cannot win the league title at Everton on Sunday, however surely it will win end its 30-year drought at some point soon.
Football is back, but there was a sense this first day of resumption was about the non-footballing narratives. In both games, both sets of players and coaches and the match officials took a knee around the opening whistle, while the words “Black Lives Matter” replaced player names on jerseys. There was also a minute’s silence for those who have died during the pandemic, a total that reaches over 60,000 in the U.K. and includes both the father of Aston Villa manager, Dean Smith, and the mother of Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola.
City’s focus now–aside from waiting on the verdict on its appeal against a two-year ban from the Champions League–must be the FA Cup and the Champions League. It will almost certainly finish second – it trails Liverpool by 22 points and leads Leicester by seven–and even if it doesn’t, it’s not going to drop out of the top four, which might not matter anyway given the European ban. To that extent, the league is about getting players ready for those cup games.
After a slow start, City picked up around the midway point of the first half, and only a string of saves from Bernd Leno kept Arsenal in the game. Arsenal had been unsettled by two early injuries, as Granit Xhaka and Pablo Mari were both forced off in the first 24 minutes. But just as it seemed it might hold out till halftime, David Luiz misjudged a through ball from Kevin De Bruyne, the ball slid off his thigh and Sterling ran in to lash a shot past Leno for his first goal of 2020.
Any thought Arsenal might be able to rescue its domestic unbeaten streak–the Gunners hadn't lost in England in any competition since a Dec. 29 defeat to Chelsea, a stretch of 11 games–disappeared six minutes into the second half as a long ball from Ederson released Riyad Mahrez. He got in behind David Luiz, who clumsily pulled him back, conceding a penalty–the fourth he has given away this season–and earning his second red card of the season. De Bruyne, who had been excellent throughout, had scored from the spot against Real Madrid in the Champions League to end a run of four straight failures from the spot for City, and he converted again here.
From then on it was a case simply of playing out time. Or at least it should have been, but with 10 minutes remaining there was a horrifying collision between Ederson and Eric Garcia. After receiving lengthy treatment, the 19-year-old central defender was carried off, his condition not immediately known. Phil Foden scored a late third to account for the final goal in what was an extended period of added time.
Aston Villa had probably had the better of the opening game, with Dean Henderson making a couple of fine saves, but the huge talking point was the incident three minutes before halftime, when Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland carried an Ollie Norwood free kick over his own line, nudged on his way by his teammate Keinan Davis. Given that at one point Nyland was leaning against the inside of the post with his arm, with the ball cradled between that and his chest, there was little doubt it was over the line.
Referee Michael Oliver waited for goal line technology to make its decision, and when his wrist device didn’t buzz, he waved play on. The technology was checked at halftime and was found to be working, leading Hawk-Eye, the company that administers the technology, to apologize, explaining that a combination of post, defender and goalkeeper had led to the cameras being “occluded.”
In the end, despite the oddities, despite the empty stands, despite the distancing, it was almost gratifying, at least to neutrals, that everything felt so normal.
Arsenal can essentially give up on Champions League qualification and look at giving its raft of promising young players some match experience. City can reflect that when the likes of De Bruyne and David Silva get going it remains as good in possession as any side in the world. Sheffield United can keep dreaming of Europe, and Aston Villa can keep battling relegation.
Everybody else can just be grateful that the great distraction is back.