Manchester United recorded an emphatic win in Austria but with the escalating global crisis continuing to throw plans for the football season into disarray, the impact of the result was forgotten almost as quickly as the final whistle had been blown.
As the week began, United fans were still travelling on the continent. This was a new opponent for them to visit and even in these troubled years, one impressive constant has been United’s support on the road. But then advice was issued to not travel; then it was announced the game would be played behind closed doors.
By the time they were playing, the situation was so serious that Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo - who had to take his team to play in Greece - was telling broadcasters: ‘You realise what's happening worldwide, people are dying, now we have to play a game of football?’
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United, in the early kick-off, were doing precisely that. And as far as that side of it goes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team did a highly professional job. Their concentration appeared to be on point and, after a bizarre opening period where both teams were getting used to the atmosphere - or lack thereof - Odion Ighalo ensured there was a headline moment by scoring an outrageous goal, juggling the ball before volleying it in off the crossbar.
One wonders if he would have had the composure to do that in front of a frenetic crowd, but, it will surely go down as the greatest goal no United supporters ever saw live. None except for one, it seemed, who broke in and chanted songs before being removed.
That said, United did their best to match the quality in the second-half. Dan James registered a goal that was reminiscent of Ryan Giggs’ solo effort in Turin in 2003 and then Juan Mata - who had spurned two earlier chances - latched on to a stunning Fred pass to make it three.
In injury time, substitutes Tatith Chong and Mason Greenwood combined for a smart goal for the latter, whilst fellow sub Andreas Pereira took a free-kick and then shot from over thirty yards. The goalkeeper should have done better; the final two goals seemed to come virtue of that defeated end-of-training-session feeling.
The second leg, then, is academic, and that is even if it is played at all.
By full-time the situation back in Britain was escalating to the point where people are questioning the point in continuing with the season at all. As leagues across the continent are suspending domestic competition with a view to possibly cancelling the season where it stands, United’s fortunes seem largely futile.
Overnight, the rapid progression of the illness and its impact on some prominent names in the league means the only sensible and logical step is to suspend and cancel football competition. The advice is that the peak of the crisis may not come until May and nobody knows how everything may look at that point.
United fans would take great pleasure in the competition being suspended just as Liverpool were on the verge of claiming their first championship in thirty years; but as far as their own team are concerned, even if the authorities take the same action the Bundesliga are rumoured to be taking - that is to award European places for the following season based on current standings, which would theoretically put United in a Champions League position due to the legal situation with Manchester City - it would be a shame for Solskjaer to not be able to see out how things would transpire this season.
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Old Trafford has been crying out for this sort of form and momentum for more than half a decade and now they finally have it, to not see what it might achieve in the short term will feel like a terrific shame.
As Santo said, it was senseless for the games to be played yesterday, placing the English teams at needless risk, especially given the advice was for supporters not to travel.
Just last week, it was advised that players should not shake hands before games, which seemed a profoundly inadequate safety measure in a contact sport. Now, the public face a global pandemic, and the ultimate pointlessness of where football should register in that perspective was never better illustrated than in the empty stands at LASK yesterday evening.
Aside from the human perspective, playing any further games will come at a severe cost to the integrity of the competitions.
What if a few teams are badly hit, whilst others are fortunate to not suffer? Results would become erratic; games would be forfeited.
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And, whilst everyone of a Liverpool persuasion would like to project the idea that winning the league is a foregone conclusion, what if their first team contingent were afflicted and they were forced to play with a scratch side? It’s not difficult to envisage a scenario where Manchester City, with their greater squad strength, could handle the tough weeks better and then claw back that apparently unassailable lead. In that circumstance Liverpool, as a club, would have every right to be outraged at the lack of social responsibility taken by the authorities.
There is a much bigger picture and that is the health and safety and wellbeing of everyone in the sport, as well of course as that of the public at large. The high-profile nature of some of the names around the world impacted by the illness shows that it is indiscriminating. Everyone is at risk and that should re-align any perspective.
There will be a meeting this morning which will confirm the postponement of this weekend’s games but it seems only logical and humane that a cancellation of the rest of the season will follow. Anything else would, frankly, be irresponsible.
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