MANCHESTER           -       Raheem Sterling scored the first goal of the Premier League’s return to action after the coronavirus lockdown as Manchester City defeated Arsenal 3-0 behind closed doors at the Etihad stadium on Wednesday.

The result means Liverpool, whose lead has been cut to 22 points by second-placed City, cannot now win the title on Sunday at Everton in the Merseyside derby. But the league table was far from the minds of the few people inside the stadium at kickoff time, with a minute’s silence for victims of the coronavirus followed by the players and officials taking a knee in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Sterling, a prominent supporter of the movement whose slogan featured on the players’ shirts, fired home on the stroke of halftime to put the hosts ahead. City had threatened on several occasions to provide the first goal of “Project Restart” with Arsenal keeper Bernd Leno saving efforts from Sterling and David Silva and racing out to foil Riyad Mahrez. The goal came after Arsenal substitute David Luiz failed to deal with a ball into the box and allowed Sterling in on goal, and the Brazilian was at fault again for City’s second.

Mahrez got the wrong side of Luiz as he burst into the box and the ex-Chelsea defender put his hand on the Algerian’s back. Referee Anthony Taylor ruled he had pushed him to the ground, awarding a penalty and sending off Luiz. Kevin De Bruyne confidently converted the spot-kick and City never looked in any danger against opponents reduced to 10 men.

City also ended the game with 10 players when Spanish defender Eric Garcia was carried off on a stretcher after a collision with his keeper Ederson. City were not able to replace him as manager Pep Guardiola had used all five available substitutes. Guardiola’s side wrapped up the win in stoppage time when Sergio Aguero hit the post, after a neat exchange with Sterling, and substitute Phil Foden slotted home the loose ball.

Meanwhile, Aston Villa and Sheffield United played out a goalless draw in a match memorable for powerful statements before kick-off - and a major technology controversy. As the action resumed behind closed doors at a largely deserted Villa Park, the players of both sides and officials took a knee for 10 seconds immediately before kick-off in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This was preceded by a minute’s silence in memory of those who have died as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. When the game got under way in this new environment, Sheffield United were the victims of a serious first-half injustice when Villa keeper Orjan Nyland fell behind his goalline clutching Oliver Norwood’s free-kick in the 41st minute, only for referee Michael Oliver’s watch to fail to signal a goal.