Liverpool should have been preparing for a Premier League title party this weekend. Had the 2019-20 season played out as normal, without the unforeseen crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, the penultimate game of the campaign against Chelsea would have coincided with the club's first league trophy in 30 years being held aloft by captain Jordan Henderson and his teammates at Anfield. Though it would likely have been cemented long before, given their 25-point lead over Manchester City when the games were paused in mid-March.
Instead, Liverpool's title -- they need six points from their final nine games to be confirmed as champions -- will be clinched in silence. If the 2019-20 season is able to resume at all, it will have to be played behind closed doors, without supporters. Due to guidance from the UK government, law enforcement and emergency services -- police, fire and ambulance -- the Premier League will only be allowed to return if games are played at neutral grounds, and it is almost certain that Anfield will not stage a football game again this season. There may be no crowds at any football game until 2021 at the earliest.
As for the trophy, it is more likely to be delivered to Anfield by courier on a wet Tuesday in July than hoisted by Henderson to joyous scenes in front of passionate supporters.
But football has to make big sacrifices if it is to return anytime soon. It is now the only way. If it sounds like football in a laboratory, that is because it has to be like that if this season is to be concluded on the pitch rather than by committee via video conference or in the courtroom.
The prospect of Liverpool lifting the trophy at an empty Anfield after facing Chelsea behind closed doors was as good as ruled out last week by the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, who raised fears of fans simply turning up to celebrate outside the stadium. Less than a year ago, 750,000 Liverpool fans lined the streets of the city to welcome the team home from winning the Champions League in Madrid.
"Even if it was behind closed doors, there would be many thousands of people who would turn up outside Anfield," Anderson said. "There's not many people who would respect what we were saying and stay away from the ground, a lot of people would come to celebrate, so I think it's a non-starter. It would be really difficult for the police to keep people apart and maintain social distancing if they were going to celebrate outside Anfield. It would be farcical."
Anderson's comments were criticised by Liverpool and the club's supporters' groups, but with so many concerns related to safety, the health of participants and crowd control in times of strict social distancing, football has to accept the alien concept of no fans, empty stadiums and games being played where they wouldn't usually be played, simply to get this season done.
Yet the concept of neutral venues is proving to be the biggest challenge to overcome when the 20 Premier League clubs vote on the proposal. The vote, now likely to be early next week, needs a 14-6 majority to be passed. There is sizeable resistance within the Premier League to the requirement that the season be played out in this way.
Sources have told ESPN that a number of clubs believe that the idea is unworkable because it takes away home advantage. Brighton chief executive Paul Barber went on record at the weekend to voice his club's concerns that the proposal had "potential to have a material effect on the integrity of the competition."
Whether there would actually be any advantage from playing at home, without fans, is a valid question. Home supporters tend to be the biggest factor in driving a team on, but that will be taken out of the equation, whether games are played at home or at neutral venues. But sources have told ESPN that there are several factors behind the insistence of the government that games be played at neutral grounds.
Facilities which enable social distancing within the stadium are key from a health perspective. The size and space of areas like changing rooms, corridors and tunnels -- with newer grounds far more spacious than older ones -- are key to allowing players, staff, officials and TV crews to move around without issue. Stadiums will also be selected on the basis of the rate of COVID-19 infections in the local area. Ten stadiums have been shortlisted, including Wembley, but sources have told ESPN that Anfield is almost certain to be left off the list because its location in a residential area of Liverpool makes it hugely difficult for police to impose an exclusion zone designed to keep fans away.
Wembley, the Emirates Stadium, Old Trafford, the Etihad, Brighton's Amex Stadium and Southampton's St Mary's are all blessed with ultra-modern facilities, huge, spacious perimeters or both. But it is the prospect of supporters turning up at games, as thousands of flare-wielding Paris Saint-Germain fans did prior to their Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund in March, that is the biggest fear of the authorities.
By staging games at neutral venues, hundreds of miles from home, it is hoped that celebrating supporters -- whether it is Liverpool fans toasting the title or those whose teams have just escaped relegation -- will be kept away.
It is not ideal and it is certainly not what football is about. But if the 2019-20 season ends by becoming some kind of ghost season at empty, neutral venues, it is surely a better way than resolving everything with mathematicians and lawyers.