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January 15, 2021

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Game off, hugging row hits EPL

The novel coronavirus outbreak at Aston Villa has led to the postponement of another game as the English Premier League holds talks with captains and managers of clubs to urge compliance with enhanced regulations.

“A significant number of players and staff remain in isolation” at Villa, the league said yesterday after granting the central England club’s request to no longer play Everton on Sunday.

The Everton game had been moved from Saturday to Sunday to give the club extra time.

Villa, whose game against Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday was also called off, said it expects the isolating players and staff to be part of training again from Sunday.

“The club would like to express its immense gratitude to the medical experts who have helped us to get a significant COVID-19 outbreak under control, as well as the Premier League board and our fellow clubs for their understanding during this period,” said a statement from the club.

“We expect that members of the first-team squad and staff who are healthy and safe to return to training will do so on Sunday when the isolation protocols will have been observed.”

The league has tightened coronavirus protocols, including telling players and managers to avoid shaking hands and hugging during goal celebrations. That message was being reinforced in virtual meetings with club captains and managers before this weekend’s games.

“Some of the scenes we have seen have been brainless and give out an awful message,” said Julian Knight, who chairs the House of Commons select committee overseeing sports policy.

Knight added that exuberant goal celebrations were sending the wrong message at a time of national emergency.

“In the same way as referees issue yellow cards for players taking off their shirts, they could do the same thing with this,” he said. “Surely its unsportsmanlike to risk someone getting COVID, isn’t it?”

Under world body FIFA’s rules, a player who removes his jersey after scoring a goal should be cautioned for unsporting behavior.

The EPL is among the elite sports competitions allowed to continue during England’s third national lockdown which began last week. But the government expressed concern on Wednesday about players not adhering to the regulations when they are so closely celebrating goals — just as the public is largely told to avoid such close contact.

Manchester City’s players still hugged after Phil Foden scored in a 1-0 win over Brighton & Hove Albion on Wednesday.

“Sometimes the brain is a subconscious one and you are just there in the moment,” City manager Pep Guardiola said. “You are not thinking.”

Knight pointed to sports like cricket and the National Football League where they kept a distance. “I understand what is said but maybe one has to exercise some extra level of self-control. Everyone else is, in society right now.”

The first game postponed this season because of COVID-19 was Villa’s match against Newcastle United in early December, but that was because of virus cases in the Newcastle squad. The league said it hopes to play that game on January 23 since Villa and Newcastle have been eliminated from the FA Cup and will not have matches in the competition that weekend.

Dean Smith’s Villa, which is eighth in the table, 10 points behind leader Manchester United, will have three games in hand over most of its rivals after the next round of fixtures this weekend.

A more contagious variant of COVID-19 is sweeping across Britain where there have been more than 84,000 known deaths from the disease and hospitals are struggling to cope with the demands caused by an increase in infections.


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