Faltering restart for Liverpool title charge after shutdown

ROB HARRIS
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APTOPIX Britain Soccer Premier League

Everton's Seamus Coleman, left, challenges Liverpool's Sadio Mane during the English Premier League soccer match between Everton and Liverpool at Goodison Park in Liverpool, England, Sunday, June 21, 2020. (Peter Powell/Pool via AP)

LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Liverpool’s title charge has been slowed by the pandemic, and its attacking ruthlessness blunted.

After a wait of 103 days, Jürgen Klopp's team returned to action with a 0-0 draw at Everton on Sunday as it nears the end of a 30-year title drought.

It means the world champions can no longer be sure of sealing the English title with a victory against Crystal Palace on Wednesday. Liverpool can become champions with a win if Burnley does not lose at second-place defending champion Manchester City on Monday.

Liverpool lost to Watford in the penultimate Premier League match before the unexpected break in the league. But when the team is 23 points in front with eight games remaining there is hardly much to grumble about.

The need to prevent the coronavirus spreading meant this was an unusually quiet Merseyside derby with fans prohibited from Goodison Park and even the teams having to enter the field separately. Liverpool used a temporary dressing room outside the stadium so they could socially distance.

“Obviously everyone didn’t know really what to expect, the whole procedure before the game and how things will go," Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk said. “Obviously we wanted to win, we wanted to get the three points today, but we’re another step closer. We’ll try to improve every time.”

That has been the message since the week before the football shutdown in March when Liverpool was also knocked out of the Champions League and FA Cup.

But Liverpool saw just why Everton is unbeaten at home since Carlo Ancelotti was hired. He has steered the team 11 points clear of the relegation zone which it dropped into after losing at Anfield in December in Marco Silva's final game before being fired.

The search for a goal on Sunday saw Joel Matip’s header go wide in the first half and Fabinho having a free kick tipped over by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford late on.

Liverpool should have striker Mohamed Salah back fit for the visit of Palace to Anfield after not being risked from the substitutes' bench on Sunday.

“After four weeks’ pre-season and preparation," Klopp said, “we cannot ignore that we play again on Wednesday."

SENDING A MESSAGE

With the impending arrivals of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud could find game time increasingly hard to come by at Chelsea next season.

They gave manager Frank Lampard a reminder of their qualities against Aston Villa.

Pulisic scored five minutes after coming on as a substitute and Giroud added a second soon after, as Chelsea rallied for a 2-1 win at Villa Park to strengthen the team's hold on fourth place.

Chelsea is five points clear of Manchester United in fifth place, which will be enough to qualify for next season's Champions League if Manchester City fails to overturn its two-year European ban.

Pulisic, the U.S. winger, hadn't played for Chelsea since Jan. 1 because of injury and then the league's suspension. It was his sixth league goal in his first season in England, and seventh in all competitions.

NEWCASTLE NEARLY SAFE

If Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund does eventually complete its protracted purchase of Newcastle, it will take over a club almost guaranteed to be in the Premier League next season.

A 3-0 win over 10-man Sheffield United lifted Newcastle 11 points clear of the relegation zone with eight games remaining. Allan Saint-Maximin, Matt Ritchie and Joelinton scored after John Egan was sent off in the 50th minute for a second yellow card.

It was Newcastle’s first game since the restart after a three-month hiatus when the club’s future was one of the big talking points. League officials are deciding whether to approve the Saudi Public Investment Fund buying an 80% stake in Newcastle as part of a takeover alongside the wealthy British-based Reuben brothers and financier Amanda Staveley.

The deal is complicated by a recent ruling by the World Trade Organization that the Saudis facilitated the bootlegging of sports broadcasts, as well as the kingdom’s human rights record. But the Saudis have now tried to offer assurances they are clamping down on the piracy.

Sheffield United missed a chance to climb to fifth place.

LACKLUSTER LEEDS

Surely Leeds isn’t going to have another end-of-season collapse?

Marcelo Bielsa’s team played its first game of the restart in the second-tier Championship and lost 2-0 at Cardiff, leaving Leeds second on goal difference and seven points clear of third-place Fulham. There are eight games left.

Leeds, out of the Premier League since 2004, looked like getting promoted last season only to lose in the playoffs after a poor run of form late in the season.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas contributed to this report.

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