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COVID-19 hits English Boxing Day soccer

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The surge of COVID-19 cases in Britain has already begun to affect Boxing Day football, one of the highlights of the English season.

Two Premier League matches were called off Thursday (local time), three days before they were due to be played.

With 21 matches in the Football League postponed, more than half the program has been lost.

Leeds United’s match at Liverpool, and Watford’s at Wolverhampton Wanderers, were postponed after both visiting teams recorded a significant number of positive tests.

Everton attempted to have its match at Burnley postponed but was told it had to play on.

And for those whose matches are on, there is concern among managers and players the gruelling schedule is detrimental to player welfare.

Leeds’ training ground has been closed to contain the spread of the virus, with five positive cases among the squad and staff reported on Thursday.

“All of the cases we have experienced are asymptomatic, which we believe is due to our high vaccine take-up,” Leeds said.

“The positive cases, combined with our well-documented injury issues, means that we would not have enough recognised first-team players to meet Premier League requirements.”

Leeds’ game with Aston Villa on December 28 is now likely to be under threat.

Watford, which has already had two games called off this month, continues to have too few players to field a team, the Premier League said.

“Due to players coming out of isolation, it is fully expected Watford will be available for their fixture on Tuesday, December 28, against West Ham United,” the League added.

Everton manager Rafael Benitez was unhappy the team was ordered to play.

“We have six injuries and five players with COVID,” he.

“I think it is not fair.”

“I’m really surprised we are playing this game. We have nine outfield players available plus three keepers. After [that] we have to bring five young players.

“It’s quite dangerous for us. We may have to include players who are not ready.”

While leagues in most European countries take a break over Christmas the holiday program is one of the most cherished traditions of the English game and matches usually attract larger-than-average crowds.

The packed program is not to everyone’s liking, however. Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola – while supportive of playing through Christmas – is one of several managers who want to revert to five substitutes, as allowed when last season re-started.

“The tradition from Boxing Day is massively important,” said Guardiola.

“It’s a characteristic of this league. It won’t change. The problem is the fixtures, the calendar, 365 days a year. It’s too much.

“We want to protect the players, so bring five substitutions. It is the only country that has just three subs, not five. Why?”

Smaller clubs voted down the proposal at the start of the season believing it would mainly benefit wealthier clubs with their bigger squads.

On the wider issue of fixture congestion Guardiola said: “Maybe we need a strike for people to take attention” but backtracked saying it would not happen.

Six Boxing Day Championship matches are off so far, together with seven in League One and eight in League Two.

This leaves just four matches in each of the three divisions. Some matches scheduled for next week have also been postponed.

-AAP