Covid tests tak­ing toll as clubs count cost of play­ers’ hol­i­day habits

Shorter pre-sea­son and loss of miss­ing stars could put added pres­sure on sides over com­ing months of cam­paign

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Sam Wal­lace Chief foot­ball writer

At Chelsea, where the club played their last game in the Cham­pi­ons League against Bay­ern Mu­nich 20 days ago, the sim­ple ques­tion of how to run a com­pet­i­tive ses­sion that pre­pares Frank Lam­pard’s play­ers for the de­mand­ing sea­son ahead is al­ready a chal­lenge.

The ab­sence of eight first team play­ers is not sim­ply about who might play in their first game against Brighton and Hove Al­bion in the Pre­mier League on Sept 14, or in­deed in a friendly against the same op­po­nent to­mor­row.

It is about con­di­tion­ing their play­ers in pre-sea­son to with­stand the de­mands of play­ing and train­ing over a sea­son like no other, in which the pro­gramme will be com­pressed into a pe­riod one month shorter than usual.

The pos­i­tive coro­n­avirus tests for play­ers re­turn­ing from hol­i­days across Europe and fur­ther afield – as well as those obliged to iso­late be­cause of po­ten­tial con­tact with in­fected par­ties – has be­come a ma­jor prob­lem at the club. But not just Chelsea, where Jorginho, Ross Barkley, Emer­son, Michy Bat­shuayi, Ma­son Mount, Fikayo To­mori, Tammy Abra­ham and Chris­tian Pulisic are all in iso­la­tion.

Manch­ester United must now re­con­fig­ure Paul Pogba’s train­ing pro­gramme, with the French mid­fielder left out of the France squad and iso­lat­ing at home fol­low­ing a pos­i­tive test. Aaron Wan-Bis­saka is fac­ing a quar­an­tine of 14 days when he re­turns from Dubai – a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion that the play­ers were coun­selled against vis­it­ing. Elsewhere, Tan­guy Ndombele at Tot­ten­ham has re­turned a pos­i­tive test, while Joelin­ton at New­cas­tle United has been forced into self-iso­la­tion.

The suc­cess or oth­er­wise of a sea­son is so of­ten built on the bedrock of the prepa­ra­tion that play­ers are able to un­der­take in the weeks be­fore it starts. It is there that the hard work is done and the tac­ti­cal ideas for the next nine months are drilled and re­fined. This sum­mer, like no other, time is short. The ro­bust­ness of play­ers to­ward in­juries, their ca­pac­ity to play the way their coaches de­mand, is very much re­liant on these next few weeks.

For the clubs who have had to tell play­ers to stay away from the train­ing ground, this is the spike which many feared when Pro­ject Restart was first launched. Then, the clubs in the Pre­mier League and the Cham­pi­onship were less sure they could con­tain the virus among play­ers and staff, al­though test re­sults quickly demon­strated that their pro­to­cols were work­ing.

The twice-weekly an­nounce­ment of the Covid-19 test re­sults in both leagues be­gan as a dramatic re­veal that would in­di­cate the like­li­hood of the sea­son be­ing com­pleted. It even­tu­ally be­came a for­mal­ity – by the end of the sea­son, the Pre­mier League was re­turn­ing zero pos­i­tive re­sults on test co­horts in ex­cess of 2,000 play­ers and staff.

The play­ers’ sum­mer hol­i­days have changed that and while the ex­pec­ta­tion is that the num­bers of pos­i­tive tests will fall again once the play­ers re­turn to the cy­cle of play­ing and train­ing, the con­cern is the long-term ef­fects of an in­ter­rupted pre-sea­son.

The fears that so­cial dis­tanc­ing and Covid-safe pro­to­cols would go out of the win­dow once multi-mil­lion­aire foot­ballers were un­leashed on their sum­mer have been re­alised in many cases. Many of the play­ers’ In­sta­gram feeds have given a clue as to the at­ti­tude to­wards the virus in the places they have vis­ited. Their clubs have tried to warn them of the dan­gers and player What­sApp groups have kept track of des­ti­na­tions where quar­an­tine mea­sures have been in­tro­duced.

For Gareth South­gate, the ex­pec­ta­tion is that his Eng­land squad for the games against Ice­land and Den­mark will have to be re­drawn over the week­end as play­ers are tested, and fit­ness checked. For in­ter­na­tional man­agers, whose last games were in Novem­ber, it is par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult. The sched­ul­ing of the first round of Na­tions League games be­fore the re­sump­tion of the league sea­son was al­ways likely to cause ten­sion with clubs, but the scale of with­drawals could be much greater than usual.

Chelsea are still plan­ning to play their friendly against Brighton to­mor­row – a pilot event for the re­turn of fans to parts of the Amex Sta­dium. As for how the league might deal with clubs fac­ing mul­ti­ple Covid cases and forced to play games un­der-strength, the ques­tion still re­mains.

It was raised at Pre­mier League share­holder meet­ings be­fore Pro­ject Restart. The league is very un­will­ing to post­pone any games and hopes the Covid out­break will be un­der con­trol by the time the fix­tures re­sume.

The show must go on, al­though it seems the con­trol of the play­ers’ move­ments and the chang­ing of their habits will have to take longer if the clubs are to make a suc­cess of it. They be­lieve they can con­trol the virus, but what dam­age pos­i­tive cases and iso­la­tion re­quire­ments in pre-sea­son will do to the long-term fit­ness of play­ers placed un­der more in­tense de­mands than usual, will only emerge over the com­ing months.

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