A split image of England players, a Premier League match, Rangers players, football fans and Sarina Wiegman, the new boss of England's women
The New Year looks set to bring the men’s European Championship, fans returning to stadiums again, interesting Scottish and English title races, plus a new era for Sarina Wiegman and the Lionesses

Optimism was in short supply in a tempestuous and testing 2020. But with the annus horribilis now over, we are all hoping 2021 will provide more positivity.

Football has offered a little bit of escapism for millions of us this year – and promises to give more uplifting moments away from the pandemic in the next 12 months.

Here are five things we hope we can look forward to…

The return of fans

Going to the match with your mates and getting the atmosphere going in a packed stadium might seem a long way off at the moment.

However, the coronavirus vaccine does provide optimism that could happen in the coming months.

A handful of supporters were fortunate enough to watch live football again in recent weeks, when a limited number returned to grounds in tier one and tier two areas after the national lockdown ended on 2 December.

That changed on Wednesday, with all matches behind closed doors again following the latest Covid-19 restrictions.

Vaccinations are starting to be rolled out across the country and Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the programme’s speed will depend on how fast the vaccines can be manufactured.

Only when that process is further down the line will we know what it means for football crowds. But most fans will hope 2021 brings the chance to dust off the season ticket, go through a much-missed matchday routine and see their favourite team in the flesh once again.

Leicester's home game against Aston Villa
Leicester’s home win against Aston Villa on 9 March was the last Premier League game to be played in front of a full crowd

A more open Premier League title race?

When England’s Premier League resumed in June there was little to get excited about in terms of a title race.

Liverpool sat 25 points clear at the top and the possibility of them not wrapping up their first league title in 30 years was close to non-existent.

Even going into 2020, the Reds were already 13 points clear of second-placed Leicester City – with a game in hand.

Twelve months on, things are much tighter. Only seven points separate Liverpool, who still look to be the team to beat, and ninth-placed Southampton.

However, the Reds are not as impenetrable as they were. After 16 games last season, they had dropped points just once in a draw at Manchester United.

After the same number of games this term, Jurgen Klopp’s side have dropped points in seven games, with six draws and one defeat.

Two seasons ago, Manchester City won the title by accumulating 98 points, just short of their record 100-point haul in 2017-18.

Graphic showing the top of the Premier League table, with only nine points separating leaders Liverpool from ninth-placed Southampton

“Liverpool and City are not where they were. That makes it interesting,” former England defender Gary Neville said in December.

“That is what this season is doing to us. The top two set a bar I’ve never seen before – now we are seeing something more normal.”

With a packed fixture calendar giving little room for rest or manoeuvre in the next few months, the unpredictability of the opening 16 rounds of fixtures could be set to continue into 2021.

A new order in Scotland?

Celtic boss Neil Lennon and Rangers counterpart Steven Gerrard
Celtic boss Neil Lennon has faced fans’ protests in recent weeks, while Rangers counterpart Steven Gerrard is aiming for his first Scottish title

The end of Celtic’s stranglehold on Scottish football will not be seen as a positive thing by those of a Bhoys persuasion – but the rest of the country might think it is.

Celtic have monopolised football in Scotland for four seasons, winning all of the past 12 domestic trophies.

This season’s Scottish Premiership appears to be heading to a predictable – yet different – outcome.

Rangers, under the leadership of former England midfielder Steven Gerrard, hold a 16-point lead at the top over their Glasgow rivals.

Ending the grip held by Celtic – who are bidding for an unprecedented 10th consecutive title – would look increasingly like a formality if Rangers win the Old Firm derby at Ibrox on Sunday.

But if they lose it would give renewed hope to Neil Lennon’s men, who still have three games in hand on their neighbours.

Winning 10 in a row would be the ultimate achievement in one-upmanship in the Old Firm rivalry, having so far remained tantalisingly out of reach for both Celtic and Rangers.

Celebrations will not only be held in Glasgow this season, however. Hibernian, Livingston, St Johnstone and St Mirren will battle for the first major honour of the campaign after reaching the Scottish League Cup semi-finals.

Hibs were the last team before Celtic to lift a trophy with their 2016 Scottish Cup win.

Triple British hopes at Euro 2020 – and a genuine chance England could win it?

Euro 2020
The tournament was originally scheduled to take place from 12 June to 12 July this year

Whether fans will be allowed to go to matches at the rescheduled Euro 2020 remains to be seen and is likely to rely heavily on the success and speed of the coronavirus vaccinations.

The championship is scheduled to start on 11 June and be held across 12 European cities.

Uefa is keeping its options open before making a final decision in March whether to hold the tournament at full capacity, partial capacity or behind closed doors.

“We can’t guarantee whether it will played in its current form, but hopefully we will get the tournament and get something to be excited about,” former England goalkeeper Rob Green told BBC Radio 5 Live.

Either way, the finals will attract strong interest in Britain, with England, Scotland and Wales having qualified. It is the first time since the 1958 World Cup that these three home nations have all qualified for a major tournament.

“People will be looking forward to it and you get that overwhelming optimism when a tournament starts – although you never know how long that will last,” said former Wales midfielder Dave Edwards.

“As a society, we need something like this.”

Scotland have qualified for a major men’s tournament for the first time since the 1998 World Cup.

“We’ve had 22 years where it has been difficult being a Scotland fan,” joked former Scotland winger Pat Nevin.

“We are well looking forward to it and whether it is in stadiums or on television, whatever, the excitement is off the scale.”

And there appears to be a genuine chance England could end 55 years of hurt.

Gareth Southgate’s side are the world’s fourth-ranked men’s team (only Belgium of the European nations are above them) and are scheduled to play all of their group games – plus a potential semi-final and final if they get there – at Wembley.

New eras for England and Scotland’s women

If none of the men’s sides manage to win silverware at the Euros, then a national celebration might not be too far behind for their female counterparts.

There is hope that could come in the shape of an Olympic gold for Great Britain next year. But if not, England and Scotland are separately preparing for exciting new futures under different management.

The Lionesses have been beaten semi-finalists in their past three major tournaments. But a new era is set to be ushered in from September when Netherlands manager Sarina Wiegman takes over.

Wiegman led the Dutch to glory at Euro 2017 and almost bettered that feat when they reached the 2019 Women’s World Cup final.

Despite a 2-0 defeat by the United States, Wiegman’s reputation as a “proven winner” remains and has led to optimism she can bring success to England.

“She knows how to be a winner,” said former England midfielder Katie Chapman.

“Her teams are always special to watch. It will be refreshing and I’m excited to see her work.”

Scotland, meanwhile, are set for the most crucial managerial appointment in their history.

Shelley Kerr’s departure on 24 December was the end of an era for the Scots, who qualified for their first World Cup under her guidance straight off the back of a European Championship appearance under Anna Signeul.

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