When top-class football resumed in Ukraine last week, it sent out two clear and distinct messages – one of hope aimed at the Ukrainian people and one of defiance aimed at Vladimir Putin.

Yes, the games are being played behind closed doors. Yes, there is a significant military presence at the matches. And yes, air raid shelters have had to be installed to offer the players protection if the unthinkable were to happen. But despite all those things, despite the fear and restrictions, the bottom line is that footballs are being competitively kicked. And that is great.

The season started with a match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist Kharkiv last Tuesday, a date specifically chosen as it was Ukraine’s Independence Day. And despite worries that the event may come under attack, the air raid sirens remained silent for the duration of the 0-0 draw. Football, or at least something closely resembling it, had returned to the war-torn country.

However, if you want further stark reminders of the horrors Ukraine has faced over the last six months, there are two specific things that make this a very sad and unusual season.

Firstly, all the games are being played either in the Kyiv area or in cities in the west of the country where fighting has been very limited, and which are considered relatively safe.

The more poignant reminder, however, comes in the fact that two teams that make up the Premier League – Desna Chernihiv and Mariupol FC – are not involved in this restart.

The town of Chernihiv has been badly damaged, following a prolonged siege, and the club is not in a position to even think about resuming playing. And, as we all know, there is very little left of the Russian-controlled city of Mariupol, certainly not its football team.

If someone had told me a year ago that this is how a new football season would be panning out in a modern European country, I would have called them mad. But this tragic situation is what it is.

Some critics have suggested it is wrong to resume professional sport in the country while the war rages on. And I can see why they may feel that way. Sport is obviously little more than a trivial aside set against the backdrop of a war.

But for me, the pros of getting football up and running again far outweigh the cons. Especially as the games are being screened all over the country, which is just the sort of distraction the population is craving as they live with their daily horrors.

So credit to the Ukrainian authorities, teams and players for having the courage to get back on the pitch. It can’t have been easy deciding to play football while friends and family in some parts of the country live in fear for their lives. But symbolically, I believe this is the right thing to do.


United’s resurrection?

I know I said last Monday’s match against Liverpool might be just what Manchester United needed to kick-start their season – but I’m not going to pretend I thought it would really happen.

Yes, there was some logic to my theory that a game against a massive rival might be the best way to spark Ten Hag’s team into life. But so abject had United’s performances been in their first two games that I couldn’t honestly see them raising their game sufficiently to claim a win. But win they did, and while one swallow does not a summer make, the situation at Old Trafford doesn’t look quite as desperate as it would have, had they gone into this weekend without a point to their name.

It has been said that the win over Liverpool marks the real start of the Ten Hag era. I would prefer to reserve judgement on that and see if they follow that result up with a few more positive ones. It could well be the United players don’t manage to reach the same levels of desire and intensity against less glamourous opponents, which would be an indicator of deeper problems. Realistically speaking, it’s too early to tell if the 2-1 win was a one-off or the start of a prolonged improvement.

Liverpool, meanwhile, need to do a bit of soul-searching of their own.

Two points from their first three games is not the sort of start Jurgen Klopp wanted or needed if his team is to wrestle the title away from Manchester City. But it is early days and they have some key players to come back from injury. While I don’t expect their current malaise to last for long, with a string of victories probably lurking just round the corner, every dropped point is going to make it harder to keep up with Pep Guardiola’s team.

City may have dropped two points against an excellent Newcastle United team last weekend, but we all know that is not a scenario that is going to be repeated very often over the full 38 games. By the time you’ve read this, of course, Liverpool will probably have given Bournemouth a good hammering and set off on that run of victories I mentioned earlier.

But you have to wonder if those seven (net five) dropped points from the first 270 minutes of the season will come back to haunt them come the final reckoning. I suspect it might.


E-mail: James@quizando.com

Twitter: @Maltablade 

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