Condensed Champions League to start under shadow of Covid-19

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NYON: As a second wave of coronavirus cases hits Europe, the Champions League is going to again send elite players criss-crossing the continent.

But football’s biggest club competition has a back-up plan to ensure the group stage can be completed, even if there is a delay caused of the pandemic.

The 32-team contest will begin on Tuesday, one month later than usual, a knock-on effect of the pandemic interrupting last season for three months, although the group stage will finish as usual in early December with six matchdays squeezed into a 50-day period.

It kicks off with a heavyweight clash between Paris St Germain and Manchester United on Tuesday in Group ‘H’, bringing back memories of the English side’s comeback two seasons ago when they won on away goals after losing 2-0 at home.

Barcelona host Hungarians Ferencvaros, back in the group stage after a 25-year absence, in another Tuesday match, while titleholders Bayern Munich have a glamour tie to get things going, at home to Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.

It will be a fascinating contest, and as Bayern’s Thomas Mueller admitted after the draw was made, “the pressure is on you straight away when you are the holders.”

PSG-United and Bayern-Atletico are arguably the week’s two standout ties and would be spine-tingling occasions under the lights before a full house, as would Liverpool’s trip to play Ajax in Amsterdam.

But those games will go ahead behind closed doors. After all, while European football body UEFA is allowing clubs to open stadiums up to 30 percent of capacity, it all depends on the green light of local authorities.

UEFA settled on the new timeframe in early June when the pandemic appeared to be under control in Europe. But with the recent surge in infection numbers around the continent, it has begun to look increasingly ambitious.

Cristiano Ronaldo is among the players who have tested positive recently, and he will miss Juventus’ opening match away to Dynamo Kiev on Tuesday.

The Portuguese could also be forced to sit out the following week’s match at home to Barcelona, when he is due to face his old rival Lionel Messi for the first time in over two years.

UEFA has drawn up a detailed health protocol which, in principle, allows teams to play even if members of their squad test positive.

As long as a team has a minimum of 13 available players including one goalkeeper, matches can go ahead. Clubs will also be allowed to field players who were not initially registered for the competition to make up the numbers.

However, UEFA recognises that national authorities could intervene and order an entire team into quarantine.

UEFA’s rules say that teams may have to forfeit matches in the Champions League, particularly if they fail to inform it of restrictions imposed by local authorities on either themselves or the visiting team.

However, UEFA says it may also reschedule matches in some cases and has set a deadline of January 28 for them to be played, giving clubs a potential seven-week extension to complete their fixtures.

PARIS: Paris St Germain’s Neymar (L) arrives for the team’s training session on Monday.—AFP
SEASON FOR A SURPRISE?

Last season, long before the debacle of Barca’s 8-2 humiliation against Bayern in Lisbon, Messi had let slip that “the way we are right now I don’t think it’s enough to win the Champions League”.

They may still be nowhere near good enough, but they and the continent’s other super clubs are again aiming to stave off the four-pronged assault from the Premier League.

For all Barcelona’s current problems, they, Bayern and Real Madrid have won eight of the last 10 Champions Leagues between them, and 10 of the last 15.

It is surely only a matter of time before PSG and Manchester City get their hands on the silverware they crave more than anything, but if there is to be a surprise winner maybe this is the year.

The very biggest clubs have the strongest squads, yet they are already complaining about the punishing schedule in a season that is more condensed than ever.

Last season’s competition finished nearly three months behind schedule with a series of one-off knockout ties behind closed doors in Lisbon from the quarter-finals onwards.

UEFA does not envisage repeating that format, insisting this season “will be played out in its entirety, in its existing format with the final in Istanbul”.

The Turkish city was supposed to host last season’s final before the pandemic forced a change of plan. It remains to be seen if fans will be able to flock from abroad to the banks of the Bosphorus on May 29 next year.

That is still a long way off and using neutral venues is a possibility in the face of potential travel restrictions.

Something else facing disruption is the prize pot.

UEFA has not made the amount of its prize money public but a reduction from last season seems inevitable due to the economic downturn.

Then the pot amounted to a fraction over two billion euros ($2.3 billion) for the Champions League and Super Cup.

Bayern were able to pocket almost 87 million euros for their winning run.

To that they could add another 35 million euros from their coefficient ranking, with more on top from broadcasters.

It is those riches that the biggest clubs come for, and Bayern will take some stopping again.