Stakes high as Euro restart accelerates

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By now, Europe’s major club trophies should already be stowed away in cabinets. Instead, they are still up for grabs, with most of the top leagues only just kicking off after the coronavirus interruption.

While Germany returned on May 16, the top two Spanish divisions have only just resumed, and the English Premier League and Serie A will reappear this week.

AFP Sport picks out the key issues as elite European soccer gets back into its stride.

All kicking off

The Premier League returns on Wednesday and Serie A on Saturday, joining the Bundesliga and La Liga in rebooting their seasons.

Aston Villa, which lost to Leicester City on Match 9 in the last match before the lockdown, will kick off against Champions League-chasing Sheffield United.

The potentially pivotal game on reopening day pits Manchester City against visiting Arsenal. Second-place City trails leader Liverpool by 25 points, so anything other than a home win will put the Reds on the brink of title glory.

Serie A makes a stuttering comeback with four games that were called off back when Italian sport was suspended on March 9 midway through the 26th round of matches.

Torino kicks off at home to Parma in a mid-table battle on Saturday. On Sunday third-place Inter Milan and fourth-place Atalanta both have home games.

Nearly there

Two of the leagues could be settled by the end of the week.

Bayern Munich has been in ruthless form since the restart, winning all six matches, five in the league and one in the cup, including an important win at nearest challenger Borussia Dortmund.

Bayern can clinch an eighth straight title with victory at struggling Werder Bremen on Tuesday. But Bremen showed signs of life on Saturday with a 5-1 victory at basement-dwelling Paderborn.

Bayern coach Hansi Flick wants his side to “seal the deal”.

“We want to finish the job on Tuesday. That is our goal. We have an excellent run and want to continue our winning streak,” said Flick. “The target is to win again in Bremen. We want to just seal the deal.”

It could be one and done for Liverpool. If Manchester City fails to beat Arsenal, Liverpool can clinch its first title since 1990 away to neighbor Everton on Sunday.

The prospect of Liverpool winning the title in its own city led police to briefly suggest the match be moved to avoid fans ignoring social distancing rules and gathering to celebrate.

Finely balanced

While Bayern and Liverpool await their coronations, there is plenty at stake elsewhere.

Juventus usually burns off its pursuers in the final straight. However, second-place Lazio has been dogged and only trails Juve by a point as the ‘Old Lady’ chases an eighth straight Serie A title.

In Spain, Barcelona’s form had been erratic before the enforced break. However, Barca returned with a bang on Saturday, winning 4-0 at Mallorca to ensure it stayed ahead of Real Madrid, which won 3-1 at home to Eibar on Sunday.

The pace is frantic, with Barca returning with three matches in six days.

The battle for precious Champions League berths is tight everywhere. In England it is complicated by the possibility that Manchester City will be banned from next season’s competition.

While Paderborn in Germany, Norwich City in England, and SPAL and Brescia in Serie A all doomed to relegation, every one of the four big leagues has at least half a dozen clubs embroiled in the survival battle.

Yet Espanyol, which returned in La Liga on Saturday by ending a run of six matches-and more than four months-without a win suggested the break may help some strugglers.

Made for TV

Having been starved of live games, fans still cannot go to matches but can suddenly choose from a crowded menu-if they have the right subscriptions.

When he gave the green light for Italian soccer to return, Sports Minister Vincent Spadafora said the sport was part of the country’s “return to normal life again”.

The first match suggested the appetite was there as a goalless cup semifinal between Juventus and Inter Milan on Friday drew the biggest soccer audience for more than a year. But it was shown free-to-air on national broadcaster RAI. When Serie A returns so will the pay wall, with most matches on Sky Italia.

In Germany, the local Sky arm owns the rights and broadcast live action free for the first two rounds.

In England, the schedule has been arranged so all the 92 games can be screened live.

Thirty-three of those will be available free, including the Merseyside derby, with 25 on Sky and four each on the BBC and Amazon.

In Spain, the format is unchanged with one game a week available free, but Movistar, which owns the rights to the other nine matches, has reduced its price for the remaining games.

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