Premier League schedule upended by COVID postponements

The Premier League schedule was upended Thursday as coronavirus outbreaks at clubs forced the postponement of five weekend matches, taking the total amount of games wiped out over the past week to nine.

The league said its intention was “to continue its current fixture schedule where safely possible” although some managers have called for a brief suspension.

Adding to the postponement of the Manchester United-Brighton game on Saturday, the league said the following matches were also off: Southampton-Brentford, Watford-Crystal Palace, West Ham-Norwich (all Saturday) and Everton-Leicester (Sunday).

Only five league games remain to be played this weekend, with the growing number of infections among squads reflecting the worsening health emergency in Britain as the omicron variant spreads.

The league said its board was assessing applications to postpone matches on a case-by-case basis.

“The league understands fans will be disappointed these matches have had to be postponed and apologizes for the inconvenience and disruption caused,” the Premier League said. “All other fixtures due to be played this weekend are currently scheduled to proceed as planned.”

Two matches were being played on Thursday night, with Liverpool beating Newcastle 3-1 without three players — Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Curtis Jones — who were missing because of positive tests for the virus.

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said three players — Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi — were all unavailable for the 1-1 home draw against Everton after positive tests. Ben Chilwell, who is out injured, also tested positive and Kai Havertz was missing because he felt unwell.

The training grounds of Leicester, Brentford and Watford have been closed because of what the league described as ongoing outbreaks. Norwich has insufficient players available to play because of COVID-19, injuries and other illnesses.

Man United said a decision had been taken to suspend operations at the club’s training complex for a short period to help reduce risk of further transmission.

Brighton had wanted its match against Wolverhampton on Wednesday to be called off, with manager Graham Potter saying his team had “three or four” absences because of COVID-19 and seven players out in total. Brighton’s request was denied and the team lost 1-0.

“I think the path we’re on, I’m not sure how long we can stay on it for,” Potter said. “We all want football to continue, want life to continue as best as we can but health is the most important thing.

“We’ve got some issues ourselves and this week has been a little bit disturbing in terms of how quickly we’ve been affected. If that carries on then we’ll have to have some serious thought (about the league being suspended).”

Brentford manager Thomas Frank went even further on Thursday, saying he wanted the weekend round of fixtures to be postponed to allow clubs to deal with the outbreaks.

Frank was informed midway through his news conference on Thursday, ahead of Brentford’s away match at Southampton on Saturday, of four more cases of the coronavirus among players and staff at the club. That took the total to 13.

“We should postpone the full round of Premier League games this weekend,” Frank said. “COVID cases are going through the roof at all Premier League clubs, everyone is dealing with it and having problems.

“To postpone this round and also (next week’s English League Cup) round would give everyone a week at least, or four or five days to clean and do everything at the training ground so everything is clean and you break the chain.”

Frank said postponing this weekend’s round could be enough to ensure the busy festive program in the division will be able to go ahead largely as planned.

“We fully respect that we want to play and it is important football keeps going,” Frank said, “and this way we can make sure Boxing Day keeps going, I’m 100% sure of that.

“This omicron variant is running like wildfire around the world and I think we need to do all we can to protect and avoid it. We can do a lot by closing down training grounds for three, four or five days, and then we can go again.”

Speaking after the Liverpool game, Newcastle manager Eddie Howe said if all Premier League games aren’t able to go ahead, none of them should.

“I don’t think we want half the games played and half not played,” Howe said. “The league loses something if it becomes disjointed. A decision needs to be made for the integrity of the league.”

Tuchel said ahead of the Everton game that an additional concern was “overuse of players” who are covering for COVID-19 absences amid a busy schedule in December.

The English Football League, which covers the three divisions below the Premier League, released figures that showed a quarter of its players “do not intend” to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The EFL said 59% of players across the three divisions are already double-vaccinated, with 16% set to have the jab.

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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