Manchester (United Kingdom) (AFP) – The Premier League stands accused of overseeing a farce after agreeing to Arsenal’s request to postpone their trip to Tottenham with the Gunners reportedly missing just one player due to coronavirus.

Sunday’s north London derby, which was due to be screened live in Sky Sports’ marquee slot of 16.30 GMT, became the 21st match called off over the past two months.

Rules initially brought in to cope with record numbers of Covid-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant of the virus have quickly been abused by clubs seeking to take advantage when depleted by injuries and the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations.

Arsenal have four players away on international duty in Cameroon on top of injuries to Emile Smith Rowe and Takehiro Tomiyasu.

Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney and Cedric Soares all picked up knocks in Thursday’s League Cup semi-final, first leg at Liverpool and Granit Xhaka would have been suspended after being sent off in that game, but Martin Odegaard is the only player currently ruled out due to testing positive for Covid.

Mikel Arteta’s squad had been further depleted this week by loan moves for Ainsley Maitland Niles to Roma and Folarin Balogun to Middlesbrough.

Had both players remained at the Emirates, they may have been able to meet the Premier League’s criteria of having 13 available outfield players plus a goalkeeper.

“What started out as postponements due to a pandemic has now become about clubs not having their best team,” tweeted former Manchester United captain and Sky pundit Gary Neville.

“The Premier League must stop this now, draw a line in the sand and say all games go ahead unless you have an exceptional amount of CV (coronavirus) cases. It’s wrong.”

Arsenal themselves felt aggrieved when the first leg of their League Cup semi-final was delayed by a week for what turned out to be a number of false positive tests for coronavirus among the Liverpool squad.

“No other league in Europe is doing this,” said former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, citing Bayern Munich being forced to play 16-year-old Paul Wanner in a 2-1 home defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach last weekend.

“There is no doubt teams are taking advantage of this situation.”

– Integrity compromised –

Last season when the entire campaign was played behind closed doors or with severe restrictions on crowd attendance, just a handful of games in the Premier League were postponed due to Covid issues.

Yet now with full crowds back, fans’ plans are being thrown into turmoil with many postponements announced just 24 hours or less before games are due to go ahead.

“The postponement of the North London Derby just over 24 hours before kick-off once again raises questions about football’s attitude to fans, and the integrity of competition,” the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust said in a statement.

Premier League clubs agreed to a £330 million ($452 million) rebate to broadcasters for the disruption caused to scheduling by the late finish to the 2019/20 season due to the pandemic.

And television companies are also reportedly growing tired of seeing their schedules ripped up at short notice.

On top of the economic cost, the sporting integrity of the competition is being called into question.

There was more than just local pride at stake for Sunday’s clash with both Arsenal and Tottenham among a cluster of sides fighting for a top-four finish and the riches of Champions League football next season that would bring.

Yet, much could now rest on how matches are rescheduled with fixture congestion towards the end of the campaign likely to play a major factor.

Burnley, whose clash with Leicester on Saturday was also called off, have slipped to the bottom of the table having played five games fewer than some other sides in the league.

Should Leicester progress far in the Europa Conference League and FA Cup, there are no longer enough dates to fit in their rescheduled games without the Foxes being forced to play four games in a week.

The English top-flight prides itself as the richest league in the world. But the broadcasters and fans who put it on that pedestal are feeling short changed.