Australia's A-League returns, minus stars, after chaotic shutdown

Sydney (AFP) –


Australia's A-League football finally resumes on Friday minus Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler and several Europe-based players after a chaotic, coronavirus-enforced shutdown.

The 11-team tournament kicked off in October and was nearing the end of its regular season when it was suspended in mid-March.

Defending champions Sydney FC top the table with 48 points, eight clear of Melbourne City, who have played three more games, with Wellington Phoenix four points further adrift. Central Coast Mariners are bottom with just 13 points.

After securing a revised television deal, football bosses agreed on a July 16 restart -- more than a month later than other leading Australian sports -- with 27 matches crammed into 28 days before the finals series.

But that scenario was thrown into disarray by a recent surge in coronavirus cases in Victoria state, which saw the border with New South Wales shut last week.

The three Melbourne teams -- City, Victory and Western United -- failed to leave in time after two shambolic and aborted attempts.

They were finally granted special travel exemptions by the NSW government and arrived in Sydney last weekend where they are now undergoing a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

While allowed to train, they can't play matches, meaning Thursday's intended opening fixture derby between Melbourne Victory and Western United was put off until later this month.

After a hasty rejigging of the fixture list, the A-League will resume instead on Friday with Sydney FC against Wellington Phoenix, who have had to relocate from New Zealand. Perth Glory take on the Mariners a day later.

The season has also been extended by a week, with virtually all the matches to be played in New South Wales and the grand final set for August 30.

- 'Many challenges' -

Limited numbers of fans should be allowed to watch games, though a recent outbreak of coronavirus in parts of Sydney could impact crowd access.

Football Federation Australia head of leagues Greg O'Rourke admitted: "We have faced many challenges over the past week."

But he added: "The scene is now set for an exciting finish to the season."

Adding to the disarray, one of the league's highest-profile coaches, former Liverpool great Fowler, opted to remain in England rather than continue with Brisbane Roar.

He joined Melbourne Victory's Carlos Salvachua and Adelaide United's Gertjan Verbeek as no-shows, with both men also staying in Europe after returning to Spain and the Netherlands respectively during the pandemic.

Melbourne Victory have been one of the hardest hit by the shutdown with star striker and skipper Ola Toivonen also deciding not to return from Sweden, while defender Tim Hoogland is remaining in Germany.

Western United's Greek international Panagiotis Kone and Melbourne City's Spanish import Markel Susaeta, along with Perth captain Diego Costa, are among others to stay away.

Anyone entering Australia currently must undergo a 14-day quarantine period.