The Premier League's return is upon us!
Wednesday's match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United, soon followed by Manchester City vs. Arsenal, will signal the restart of England's top tier following a coronavirus pandemic-enforced pause of a little more than three months.
The first two matches will level up the playing field in terms of games played, making it 29 for all, leaving nine each to tackle in what promises to be a true gauntlet in June and July.
It's impossible to say what's going to happen—football is unpredictable at the best of times, but with empty grounds and truncated rests between games, who knows how this pans out? But we've taken a stab at projecting how the rest of the season unfolds anyway.
We present a predicted final Premier League table for the 2019-20 season, from 20-1, starting with the intriguing relegation scrap, moving through an enthralling race for Europe and ending with an inevitable title-winner.
20. Norwich City (Stay)
Norwich City are bottom, six points off safety and have the worst goal difference in the league; you would have to be rather bold to predict they will claw their way out of this one.
That said, a squad plagued by numerous injuries seemingly all season long is approaching full health. Could that could be a difference-maker?
19. Watford (-2)
Most clubs return from the break in better health, but Watford feel like an exception. Their best player, Gerard Deulofeu, tore his ACL in March and won't be fit for a while.
The Hornets' first three opponents after the restart are difficult—Leicester City, Burnley and Southampton—and their final games are against Manchester City and Arsenal. That's a rough hand to be dealt.
18. Aston Villa (+1)
No relegation candidate can play a card as strong as the return of John McGinn, a hugely influential midfielder who has been sorely missed since fracturing his ankle in December.
He's back for the run-in, meaning he and the mercurial Jack Grealish are reasons for optimism. But Villa will have to sort out set-piece defending—they have conceded 14 goals from dead-ball situations, the most in the division—before they win over the doubters.
17. Brighton & Hove Albion (-2)
Just scraping clear in this projection are Brighton & Hove Albion.
The call will surprise some given how toothless they have been in 2020, failing to win a single game, but they are less self-destructive than Villa and have enough goals in them to deal the required damage to stay up.
16. Bournemouth (+2)
Bournemouth have lost a significant chunk of their playing identity over the course of the season. Once certain to try to pass you off the park no matter the scenario, things have been less clear in 2019/20—something even manager Eddie Howe has acknowledged.
But the break has helped heal a heaving injury list, and even with a horrific remaining schedule, the Cherries have enough firepower and skill in Callum Wilson, Josh King and Ryan Fraser to avoid the drop.
15. West Ham (+1)
West Ham United are seemingly in a perennial state of crisis. This time, they are only sitting outside the drop zone on goal difference despite boasting a clearly superior level of talent in their squad compared to those around them.
You would back that talent to navigate their way to safety somehow, but you wouldn't expect it to be comfortable or without its twists and turns along the way.
14. Newcastle United (-1)
With 35 points already in the bag, Newcastle United fans may be excused for being more concerned about news regarding their prospective takeover than on-field developments.
They will battle through the final stretch and pick up enough points to be comfortably safe, but a top-half finish is beyond their reach.
13. Southampton (+1)
Many clubs have benefitted from the three-month break because it's allowed injuries to clear up, but that's not the reason Southampton project to improve in June and July.
They have the worst home record in the division, picking up just 14 points in 15 games, really struggling to perform in front of their tetchy fans. They are so much better away—20 points from 14 games, the sixth-best record—that these new conditions probably benefit them.
12. Crystal Palace (-1)
Three successive 1-0 wins just before the pause saw Crystal Palace shoot to 39 points, leaving behind any lingering fears over relegation.
They will resume with the same intensity, resilience and will to win–manager Roy Hodgson won't allow anything less—but are in a position to experiment or look to the future if they wish.
11. Burnley (-1)
Burnley will easily find enough points to coast to safety. They may even already have enough given they are on 39.
They and Palace figure to be the least relevant teams during the run-in. That's not a criticism of them or their playing style. It's more a reflection of how marooned they are in the middle of the table.
10. Everton (+2)
Everton have made strides under Carlo Ancelotti, but the performances are still pretty scrappy, the football not always particularly pretty and it's clear the squad isn't quite suited to what the Italian wants to do.
That's all perfectly fine—he was parachuted in midseason, and the news of another serious injury to Jean-Philippe Gbamin is a setback the club can't overcome without a transfer window—but it does limit their potential climb to only a few spots.
9. Arsenal (Stay)
Good things are brewing at Arsenal under the stewardship of Mikel Arteta, but the pause came at a bad time for them. The team were looking good in flashes but struggled to maintain performance levels—for both tactical and fitness reasons—and three months of limited training and contact likely hasn't helped to iron out those flaws.
They are likely not yet ready to put together a run that can see them challenge for a top-five spot between now and July. It might be wiser to cast one eye to the future and continue to integrate an impressive young stock of players at every opportunity.
8. Sheffield United (-1)
Sheffield United's European charge has enchanted the heart, but the head says they will fall just short.
The congested fixture list will force Chris Wilder to do something he simply hasn't had to do much this season: rotate. Nine players in the squad have started 23 Premier League games or more this season—familiarity is one of their great strengths—and the Blades' depth is far shallower than those competing with them.
In a race that will be so closely contested, that might just be enough of a disadvantage to fall down.
7. Wolverhampton Wanderers (-1)
You could argue Wolves don't boast the most sensational depth, either, and it would be a fair point, but they have managed to negotiate three-quarters of a season with UEFA Europa League duties mixed in, so you would figure they are prepared for the slog to come.
Add that to the fact that their squad, player for player, is superior to Sheffield United's, and it's easier to have faith in them hanging on to seventh.
6. Tottenham Hotspur (+2)
With Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min and Steven Bergwijn all back fit, Tottenham Hotspur have been handed an incredible chance to make up just a four-point gap to fifth place.
Their first game back, against Manchester United, is pretty seismic as a result. They are the team sat in fifth, so win it, and Spurs pull to within a point—but lose and it's a seven-point gap, which probably means it's curtains.
It's a little tough to have faith in Spurs to pull this off given how dysfunctional they looked before the pause, but with three excellent attackers returning to the lineup, they represent a wild-card option for fifth.
5. Manchester United (Stay)
The coronavirus pandemic has given United fans the chance to see something they probably didn't expect to: Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba on the same pitch in a Red Devils kit.
That's pretty exciting. As is the return of Marcus Rashford. That firepower—added to the physical, solid defensive line that's impressed all season—looks enough to see out a top-five spot.
If Manchester City's ban from UEFA competitions is upheld, or even reduced by a year, this finish means UEFA Champions League football in 2020-21.
4. Chelsea (Stay)
Chelsea's remaining fixtures aren't kind, but how much should we read into that?
After all, since mid-November, it's the poorer sides the Blues have tended to struggle against—West Ham, Bournemouth, Southampton and Newcastle United have all beaten them, while Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool have all been beaten.
They have got the depth to take on this challenge and land fourth.
3. Leicester City (Stay)
At full strength, Leicester City are the third-best team in the Premier League; their long-held position in the table in no way hints at any kind of overachievement.
The pause helped them arrest a worrying slump—they have won just one of their past five games—and that was linked to the absence of Wilfred Ndidi. Providing he's fit for the final stretch, the Foxes' five-point advantage over fourth will be insurmountable.
2. Manchester City (Stay)
To be 25 points off first place is a curious disaster for City this season. With their talent level, they should be challenging for the title with Liverpool.
If they end up coasting through the final league games, it won't be a surprise. But even on autopilot they are much better than almost every other side in the division, so second beckons.
1. Liverpool (Stay)
Liverpool will lift the title they fully deserve.
They won't be able to celebrate it the way they deserve to, and that's a massive shame, but a first Premier League trophy beckons; they may even have it by the end of June.