Liverpool’s tough start, Man United’s rough run-in

The countdown to the 2020-21 Premier League season has begun, with the publication of the fixture list enabling clubs and supporters to pinpoint whether they have a tough start, when they will face their biggest rivals and which teams stand in the way of success or failure in the run-in.

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Liverpool can now plot their title defence, and promoted teams Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham will be able to work out how and when they might bank enough points to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.

With sport still facing major disruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the new season will begin with games played behind closed doors and the delayed start, kicking off a month later than usual, will see a packed fixture list from September through to May 23.

Here is when the biggest rivals will clash and which clubs have the easiest starts or toughest run-ins.

The games to watch

LIVERPOOL vs. LEEDS UNITED (Sept. 12)
The Premier League champions versus the Championship champions on the opening weekend is as good as it gets, especially when you add in the prospect of Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa facing Jurgen Klopp in his first game in England’s top flight.

There is also some serious history between these two clubs, with a rivalry dating back to the 1960s, so Leeds have been welcomed back after a 16-year absence with a classic fixture to launch their season.

Leeds will be given the acid test of their credentials, but Liverpool will also be wary of facing a promoted team who will be brimming with confidence after finally making it back.

CHELSEA vs. LIVERPOOL (Sept. 19)
Chelsea‘s transfer dealings so far this summer, which have seen the arrivals of attacking players Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, could make them serious challengers for the title, and their prospects will only be enhanced if they capture Bayer Leverkusen‘s Kai Havertz and strengthen their defence.

The visit of Liverpool to Stamford Bridge so early in the season will give Frank Lampard‘s team an opportunity to deliver a statement of intent against the reigning champions, a team many expect to defend their title.

Liverpool had been in the race to sign Werner from RB Leipzig, but the cost of the deal saw them bow out and allowed Chelsea to pounce, so the spotlight will be firmly fixed on the Germany striker in this game.

MAN CITY vs. ARSENAL (Oct. 17)
Arsenal‘s FA Cup semifinal victory over Manchester City last season was a seminal moment under new manager Mikel Arteta because it showed the progress being made and suggested better times ahead at the Emirates.

The result also gave Arteta a big win over City boss Pep Guardiola, just a few months after quitting his role as the Spaniard’s assistant to take charge at Arsenal.

When the two teams meet in Manchester in October, it will be a game that will tell us whether Arsenal can compete for the title and whether City have put last season’s disappointments behind them. For both sides, this fixture will be a signpost towards their prospects for the season.

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Steve Nicol just about understands why the bookies have made Man City Premier League favourites for 2020-21.

SPURS vs. ARSENAL (Dec. 5)

Tottenham Hotspur won the first North London derby to be staged at their new stadium in July, but this could be the first time that fans are allowed inside to see the two old rivals face off.

This has always been one of the standout fixtures, despite the recent lack of success by both teams. Managers Jose Mourinho and Arteta will be determined to get their clubs back in the top four after both missed out on Champions League qualification last season.

The clash could also be crucial in the race for the Golden Boot if Harry Kane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang remain at Spurs and Arsenal, respectively, this summer.

MAN CITY vs. MAN UNITED (Dec. 12)
The first Manchester derby of the season will see City out for revenge after suffering defeat in both league games against United last season.

The clubs will be desperate to position themselves as Liverpool’s biggest challengers for the title, so the outcome of this game could have a major bearing on that.

The fixture will fall just a week before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s second anniversary as United manager. The Norwegian has made good progress in that time, but he needs to get his team closer to City after finishing 15 points behind them last season.

LIVERPOOL vs. MAN CITY (Feb. 6)
Liverpool and City have been the best two teams in the Premier League for almost three years now, and this game could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the title.

With the two sides having already met at the Etihad in November, this one could even end up being a decider in the race for the title if it’s as close as the 2018-19 campaign, when just a point separated the two teams at the end of the season and City won the second meeting between the sides.

City have a terrible record at Anfield, having failed to win there since May 2003, so Guardiola will take his team to Merseyside knowing that the odds will be stacked against them.

LEEDS vs. MAN UNITED (April 24)
With this game taking place just a month before the end of the season, it could be crucial for the ambitions of both clubs, but even if it proves to be nothing more than a mid-table clash with little at stake, it will still be a huge game for both sets of supporters.

The rivalry is one of the most intense in English football, and it has been in deep freeze, bar the odd meeting in the cup, since Leeds were relegated in 2004. It will be United’s first Premier League visit to Elland Road since October 2003, and it will be a must-watch fixture.

There are few more hostile and noisy stadiums than Elland Road, especially when Man United come to town, so this will be a big occasion if supporter numbers are close to normal again.

MAN UNITED vs. LIVERPOOL (May 1)
Traditionally the biggest game in English football between its two biggest and most successful clubs, but this one might have an extra edge if either team is within touching distance of the title.

Liverpool’s 2019-20 success took them to 19 league titles, just one behind United’s record 20, so just imagine the prospect of Klopp’s team clinching their 20th at Old Trafford.

On the flip side, United could scupper their rivals’ hopes or even edge closer to their 21st in this game. Whatever is at stake, it will be a huge occasion.

Who has the easiest / toughest start?

Liverpool will fear no team, having finally ended their 30-year title drought last season, but they probably would have hoped for an easier start.

Klopp’s team face Leeds, Chelsea and Arsenal in their first three games, so they will have to be ready for action from day one, despite having their summer break cut short by their involvement in the Community Shield (vs. FA Cup winners Arsenal on Aug. 29).

None of the Big Six has an easy start, with each facing at least one game against another major rival in its opening six, but Spurs have perhaps the most favourable start.

Mourinho’s side face Everton, Southampton and Newcastle in September before starting October with games against Manchester United, West Ham and Burnley, but even if that is an easier start than most, it will be complicated by their involvement in the Europa League qualifiers in the first three midweeks. They will also have to submit a squad for the Carabao Cup third and fourth rounds at the same time as playing European fixtures.

Who has the easiest / toughest run-in?

Arsenal face just one of the Big Six, Chelsea (at Stamford Bridge), in the final month of the season, so if Arteta’s team are in contention for any of the key places, they will be boosted by their closing schedule.

Liverpool have a similar run, with only the trip to Manchester United on May 1 likely to cause headaches for Klopp’s team.

But in terms of a tough run to the finishing line, United have it worse than the rest, with Solskjaer’s team travelling to Leeds and Wolves in their final six games, as well as facing home games against Liverpool and Leicester.

When will fans be back in stadiums?

The Premier League has said it is “committed to getting fans back into full stadia as soon as possible, with safety always being the priority,” and the earliest possible date even a small percentage of fans can return by government regulations is Oct. 1.

Clubs are working on the prospect of stadiums being able to operate at up to 30% of capacity at the initial stage, but that will depend on the outcome of test events and the COVID-19 infection rate in the country over the coming weeks and months.

Sources have told ESPN, though, that there is an acceptance within the Premier League that normality might not return until the 2021-22 season.

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