State of play in the Premier League as action draws nearer

The return of the Premier League after nearly three months, albeit behind closed doors, will offer a welcome distraction for soccer-starved fans.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool side has a 25-point lead at the top of the table.   -  Getty Images

Three months after the last ball was kicked, the Premier League emerges from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic this week for what will be a 92-match slog to the finish.

While the virus is still affecting everyday life in Britain, the return of the Premier League, albeit behind closed doors, will offer a welcome distraction for soccer-starved fans.

Every match will be broadcast live, many made free-to-air, and the action will come thick and fast from Wednesday when Manchester City host Arsenal and Aston Villa welcome Sheffield United. Provided there is no surge in coronavirus infections, the season will conclude on July 26.

Man City faces futile pursuit, Villa seeks survival as season resumes  

So where exactly were we when things ground to a halt?

- Liverpool champions in all but name -

It is easy to overlook but by the sublime standards Liverpool has set this season, it was having a wobble.

A 3-0 defeat by Watford at the end of February dashed its hopes of going through the league season unbeaten. It then lost to Chelsea in the FA Cup and, in its last game before the lockdown, bowed out of the Champions League with a 3-2 defeat by Atletico Madrid at Anfield.

Crisis? Hardly. Jurgen Klopp's side is 25 points clear at the top and, if Manchester City loses to Arsenal, it can wrap up its first title since 1990 at, of all places, city rivals Everton next weekend.

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If the destiny of the title is a formality, Liverpool will not rest on its laurels in the remaining nine games, with Premier League records in sight.

Liverpool needs 19 more points to surpass the record 100 Man City amassed two seasons ago and, barring a dip in form, will likely shatter City's record 19-point winning margin. Six more wins would also surpass City's 32 victories from 2017-18.

- The battle to finish in top four -

With Manchester City banned from Europe next season, pending the outcome of an appeal, the battle for a top-four finish and qualification for the Champions League will sustain interest in the top half of the table once Liverpool has secured the title.

Third-placed Leicester City stuttered in the weeks leading up to the suspension, but remain well-placed.

Chelsea and a resurgent Manchester United occupy fourth and fifth spots but Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and even Burnley and Crystal Palace are within striking range if they can hit form.

- The survival battle -

Norwich City is bottom, six points from the safety zone, but has shown enough to suggest the side is not a lost cause.

Aston Villa, who has played a game less, and Bournemouth occupy the other two relegation places but the three sides immediately above the trap door, Watford, West Ham United and Brighton & Hove Albion all face a nervous few weeks trying to guarantee top-flight status.

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