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Man City, Newcastle illustrate Premier League's COVID-borne integrity issue

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NEWCASTLE, England -- At the end of a week of uncertainty and confusion due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, some things never change: Manchester City are still top of the Premier League and Newcastle United remain in the bottom three and on course for relegation after Pep Guardiola's team coasted to a 4-0 win at St James' Park on Sunday.

Yet life in the Premier League is anything but business as usual. The chief executives of the 20 clubs will meet on Monday to discuss the COVID-19 crisis that is gripping not just England's top division, but the whole of the United Kingdom. A spike in positive cases in the past week is, according to the government's medical and scientific advisers, the start of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned would be a tidal wave of infections as a result of emergence of the omicron variant.

Sources have told ESPN that the Premier League's emergency measures to combat the outbreak of positive tests, the recent spate of postponements and a relatively low percentage of vaccinated top-flight players (68% as of October, the most recent data available, although sources have said there has been little improvement on that figure in the two months since) are the issues on the agenda, rather than a vote on whether to suspend the fixture list following 10 COVID-19-related postponements since last Sunday.

Nothing is off the table, so only time will tell whether the usually congested Christmas fixture list remains on the schedule or if the Premier League will enter some kind of hibernation in the days and weeks ahead. Even if the games continue, unconfirmed reports of impending government-imposed restrictions on social gatherings could lead to the Premier League once again being played behind closed doors until the situation improves.

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The picture for football is unclear right now, and within that uncertainty is a growing concern that the integrity of the league itself is being compromised by the worrying number of postponements that's contributing to the Premier League table's disjointed look.

Prior to this game, Newcastle manager Eddie Howe made clear his concerns about the league continuing amid so much disruption to the fixture list. "I think the league really loses something when it becomes disjointed, when it loses something because of the games not played," Howe said. "I think they all go ahead or not, we can't have half played and half not."

Newcastle have now played 18 games, but Burnley, one place above them in the table, have played just 15 because of postponements -- two because of COVID-19 and one because of snow. City, meanwhile, have played and won two games in less than a week -- scoring 11 goals in the process -- to keep their title push on track and escape the threat of fixture congestion later in the season.

Meanwhile, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Brentford have all had one or more games called off due to COVID-19 during the past week, forcing them to play catch-up.

And then there is Chelsea, who have drawn their past two games and dropped four points, after being forced to play without several senior players against Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers because of the virus. Chelsea tried and failed to have their trip to Wolves postponed on Sunday -- it ended in a 0-0 draw -- after recording seven positive tests, which meant coach Thomas Tuchel could only name four outfield substitutes at Molineux.

"We applied to not play and put the situation under control and it was rejected," he said. "I am worried from a medical point of view, we have had four days of consecutive positive tests. How will it stop if we are in a bus together and in meetings together? We are disappointed, we are a bit angry."

After the game, Tuchel added to his comments and suggested that Wednesday's Carabao Cup quarterfinal against Brentford could be at risk.

"If we have tomorrow and the next test and the next positive, I would like to speak to the Premier League about what they expect," Tuchel said. "If they make us play against Brentford shall we not arrive or not train? What should we do?

"Everyone is allowed to have an opinion. We had an opinion and the Premier League had an opinion. We agree to disagree."

Liverpool were forced to face Tottenham on Sunday with four players ruled out due to COVID. A day earlier, Leeds United played -- and lost 4-1 -- against Arsenal on Saturday because they had 10 players unavailable through injury and therefore couldn't request a postponement because the absences weren't related to COVID. This nuance has led to a situation of injuries and illness being treated differently by the Premier League, whose rules state that games must be played if a team can field 14 players.

There is also disquiet among clubs that some players without COVID, but forced to isolate for 10 days because they have not been vaccinated, are counted as being among those unavailable, despite being fit and well and only ruled out because of a personal choice not to be vaccinated. Some clubs have close to 100% vaccination status among their squad, but others have not been so successful, and sources have said that will be an issue that could lead to heated disagreements during Monday's stakeholders' meeting.

Amid so many issues, there is no easy way out of the current COVID situation, which Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp admitted prior to his team's game at Tottenham.

"I think we have to fight through this, but next week if we lose another player and another player and then it is not possible," Klopp said. "No one can just push through these things. It is really hard now, because [the players] can yesterday be in and then positive. We talk about human beings and I am happy playing, but we need help."

Most Premier League teams and managers have enough problems to deal with without the impossible task of attempting to navigate a path through COVID-19. For Newcastle and Howe, every game is a big enough challenge in itself. They lost at Liverpool on Thursday and have been beaten by City, so at least the games will only get easier.

Sunday's result, though, was never in doubt once City captain Ruben Dias headed his team into the lead after five minutes. Further goals from Joao Cancelo, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling sealed a comfortable win and took City to 105 league goals in 2021, which eclipsed their previous top-flight record of 104 in 1929.

As it stands, City have two more league games to add to that tally before the end of 2021, but one thing Guardiola and his players can't control is whether COVID-19 will allow those games to go ahead as planned.