They filed into the stadiums for the first time in nine months, clutching treasured match tickets and with their masks partially hiding the glee on their faces.
What once might have been taken for granted — going to watch their teams play in the English Premier League — felt like a huge privilege Saturday for the fortunate 4,000 given the honor of being the first soccer supporters to be allowed into games in England’s top division since the outbreak of the coronavirus in March.
The fans — 2,000 from West Ham, 2,000 from Chelsea — had contrasting experiences on opposite sides of London.
West Ham imploded at its Olympic Stadium, squandering a 1-0 halftime lead against Manchester United as substitutes Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford inspired the visitors to a 3-1 win.
Chelsea’s players treated their select group of attending fans to a comeback of their own at Stamford Bridge. The hosts rebounded from conceding a fourth-minute goal from former player Patrick Bamford to beat Leeds 3-1 thanks to goals from Olivier Giroud, Kurt Zouma and Christian Pulisic.
England is the first of the major soccer nations to allow some supporters back into games during COVID-19’s second wave now that its national lockdown has ended.
Only half of the Premier League’s stadiums are allowed to welcome back a limited number of fans. Teams from the cities and towns under the toughest coronavirus restrictions must still shut out their supporters.
For that reason, Manchester City played in an empty stadium for its 2-0 win over Fulham and Burnley’s Turf Moor also had no spectators for the team’s 1-1 draw with Everton.
Carrying minor injuries amid a packed schedule of games, Fernandes and Rashford were left out of the starting lineup by United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who hoped he wouldn’t have to call upon two of his star players.
On they came for the second half, however, after United was given the runaround in the first 45 minutes by a West Ham team that should have been further ahead than 1-0. Tomas Soucek scored that goal in the 38th.
Fernandes and Rashford changed the game. Fernandes played a key part in goals scored by Paul Pogba — a curling shot from the edge of the area — and Mason Greenwood in the space of three minutes. Rashford then ran onto Juan Mata’s through-ball and chipped the goalkeeper for the third goal in the 78th.
United came from two goals down to beat Southampton last weekend and has won all five of its away games so far.
GIROUD’S GOAL SPREE
What a week it has been for Giroud.
After scoring all of Chelsea’s goals in a 4-0 win at Sevilla in the Champions League, the France striker was handed a first start in the Premier League this season and grabbed the equalizer against Leeds to cancel out Bamford’s opener on the counterattack.
Zouma headed in a corner from Mason Mount, before Pulisic slid in to convert a cross from Timo Werner and complete Chelsea’s comeback in stoppage time.
The match saw respective managers Frank Lampard, of Chelsea, and Marcelo Bielsa, of Leeds, meet for the first time in the Premier League. The pair clashed two seasons ago in the second-tier Championship after Bielsa admitted to spying on a training session of Derby, the team managed at the time by Lampard.
CITY CREEPING UP
Perhaps it was only a matter of time, but Manchester City is moving ominously into view in the early stage of the title race.
The routine win over Fulham — secured by an early strike by Raheem Sterling and a penalty from Kevin De Bruyne — lifted City into striking distance of the top of the standings after a slow start to the season by Pep Guardiola’s team.
City is four points behind Chelsea having played one game fewer.
Guardiola’s team selections continue to be a source of interest as he seeks to keep his big squad on its toes. Sterling made a strong return after being a substitute in the last two games, while Aymeric Laporte — supposedly a mainstay in central defense — missed out for the fourth straight game.
Meanwhile, Guardiola didn’t make a single substitution, at a time when he is pushing the Premier League to increase the number of replacements from three to five for player-welfare reasons.
CALVERT-LEWIN KEEPS GOING
Dominic Calvert-Lewin is not slowing up this season.
It’s now 11 goals in 11 games for the Everton striker after scoring the equalizer in a 1-1 draw at Burnley. He is the top scorer in the league, with two more than the next player in the scoring list — Tottenham’s Son Heung-min.
Robbie Brady scored a third-minute opener for Burnley, which has just one win in 10 games so far and stayed in the bottom three.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80