PEOPLE said they weren't going to watch. People said fake crowd noises was a step too far. People said it's just not football without the fans. But 25 minutes was all it took. 25 glorious minutes in which David Luiz was subbed on, gave two goals away, got sent off, and left everyone thinking 'Yeah, alright fair enough, I have missed this actually'.
Elsewhere in week one of Project Restart, we were reacquainted with Jose Mourinho's post-match cynicism, we had a pair of injury-time screamers in Watford vs Leicester, and of course the now standard drab Goodison derby which is now so bereft of attacking impetus, it is essentially a stare-out between Everton and Liverpool. This week, we have two rounds of fixtures. Two! This column will deal with Wednesday and Thursday's matches specifically. Part two to follow later this week.
In a weekend when the three clubs immediately above them all lost, Norwich blew their chance to catch up by losing 3-0 to Southampton, managing just a single shot on target all game. That's now just one goal in the last six Premier League games for the Canaries, with top scorer Teemu Pukki failing to find goal with his last 28 non-penalty shots.
That said, Norwich have a fine recent record against Everton – unbeaten in their last four at Carrow Road, and also 2-0 winners on each of their last two trips to Goodison. The second of those 2-0 wins gives the Canaries the chance to complete a league double over the Blues for the first time in 26 years.
Everton were good value for their Merseyside derby point on Sunday and probably should have nicked it late on after good chances for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Tom Davies and Richarlison. Encouraging as that performance was, the Toffees' away form is not: just three wins out of 15 on the road this season and no clean sheets since the opening day at Palace. Carlo Ancelotti's side were of course tonked 4-0 on their last away outing. Everton would love to follow up their derby draw with a win, but here they will just fall short.
With Man Utd just two points ahead of Sheff Utd, this is a crucial match in terms of Europa League qualification but it could have been so much more had the Blades not restarted the Premier League so badly. Just a single point from clashes with Aston Villa and Newcastle has in all likelihood ended their staggeringly impressive top four challenge, nevertheless a win would see them leapfrog their opponents.
If that transpired, Sheff Utd would be the first Yorkshire side to win at Old Trafford in the Premier League since Sheffield Wednesday in 1986 (42 matches in total). First, they will have to break down what has become an impressively resolute United defence. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are unbeaten in 12 matches in all competitions, having scored 30 and conceded just three goals in that time. Solskjaer was under incredible pressure at the start of that run, so he deserves credit for an impressive turnaround.
With the defence well settled for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge, expect Man Utd's attacking talent to come to the fore. The first game of the Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba experiment worked well at Tottenham with no hints of a Gerrrard-Lampard dilemma in the offing. Feeding Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James, the duo should cause no end of problems for a Sheff Utd side who will be without centre-back John Egan.
Whisper it but the champions in waiting are faltering. Liverpool have won just two of their last seven matches in all competitions, and failed to score in four of them. They've dropped more Premier League points in their last three matches (5) than they had in the previous 38 (4). Crystal Palace are at the opposite end of the form scale: four straight wins in the league with four clean sheets.
But let's not get carried away here. Liverpool have won 22 consecutive league games at Anfield – a club record. If you include draws, that run extends to 55 league games unbeaten at home since – funnily enough – Palace beat them in 2017. That victory was actually the Eagles' third straight win at Anfield, but the days of a Yannick Bolasie-inspired Palace being Liverpool's bogey side appear to be over. Since that 2017 defeat, the Reds have won all five subsequent league meetings.
Jurgen Klopp took a bit of stick at the weekend for leaving Mo Salah on the bench, but given Liverpool's virtually unassailable lead, he's right to avoid taking injury risks with his players. That said, the Egyptian will likely be back in the starting lineup for this one and being just three goals behind Jamie Vardy in the race for the Golden Boot, he's more likely than anyone to score.
Burnley may have been torn apart at the Etihad on Monday having mustered just a single off target shot on their way to a 5-0 defeat, but the Clarets' seven-game unbeaten prior to lockdown has them in Europa League contention. Complete the double over Watford – after winning 3-0 at Vicarage Road in November- and they will be right in the mix.
Craig Dawson's amazing bicycle-kick equaliser against Leicester – Watford's first goal from a corner all season – secured what could be a crucial point in the battle for survival. The draw nudged the Hornets one point ahead of both West Ham and Bournemouth. A second straight win at Burnley, they have a good chance of opening up a four-point gap with West Ham away to Spurs, and Bournemouth travelling to Watford.
Nigel Pearson has won on each of his last three trips to Turf Moor, all with Leicester, but it's a significant task to improve Watford's away form. They're to win on the road this season to any team not in the relegation zone. After going 19 Premier League matches without a draw at home (W9 L10), Burnley have two in their last three – a third in four games seems good value.
Three goals in 30 second-half minutes gave Southampton a comfortable win at Norwich and the best possible restart for Ralph Hassenhuttl. With Friday's victory moving Saints on to 34 points, seven clear of the drop zone, they may already be safe. Having won three of their last five home games against Arsenal, Hasenhuttl is entitled to be confident ahead of this clash.
The Gunners' 11-game unbeaten run on the road went up in smoke last week as Mikel Arteta's side were comfortably beaten 3-0 by Man City and overcome late on 2-1 at Brighton. Worse still, injuries to Bernd Leno, Granit Xhaka, Pablo Mari, Mesut Ozil and the suspension of David Luiz leaves Arsenal pretty depleted here. There are suggestions Rob Holding will be rushed back to cover – that doesn't sound like the most encouraging risk to take.
With reports this week confirming that three Arsenal players had tested positive for COVID-19 and had to miss days of training before eventually getting the all-clear to play (somehow?), the Gunners are one of the most undercooked, under-resourced Premier League teams this week. With Southampton's tail up, back them to win.
Chelsea's encouraging comeback win at Aston Villa enabled them to open what could be a five-point gap over fifth-place Man Utd. It also pulled them within one win of overtaking Leicester in third place. With eight games remaining, top four qualification remains in their own hands – every Chelsea fan, and Frank Lampard himself, would have taken this at the start of the season.
Two wins, two clean sheets, eight goals scored, three for Phil Foden, Sergio Aguero may have picked up a season-threatening injury but otherwise it's been an excellent return to action for Man City. Their fine recent record against Chelsea suggests that run can continue. City have won six of their last nine meetings with Chelsea (W6, L3) which is as many as they had won in the previous 34 (W6 D7 L21). Pep Guardiola's side have also kept seven clean sheets in their last 12 against the Blues.
Chelsea will offer a lot more than Arsenal (33% possession) and Burnley (28% possession) having had the majority of possession in more matches than any other Premier League team this season – a feather in the cap usually spared for Pep Guardiola sides. But ultimately, Man City will get the job done and keep up the (purely theoretical) pressure on Liverpool.