The COVID-19 pandemic brought an abrupt halt to European football. Ciro Di Brita reminds where the Champions League and Europa Leagues left off, and what happens next…
Ordinarily, both the Europa League and Champions League would have wrapped up in late May and early June but, of course, 2020 has not been an ordinary year. COVID-19 postponed the tournaments for three months, and meant an overhaul was needed to get the competitions completed.
UEFA announced that the quarter-final matches of both tournaments would become single-legged affairs, played in neutral venues. Accordingly, the Champions League ties are scheduled to be staged in Lisbon, between August 12 and 23. However, before the final eight can get underway there is the matter of four Round of 16 second legs to take care of first.
Manchester City will take a 2-1 lead over Real Madrid back to the Etihad Stadium, while Chelsea travel to Bayern Munich trailing by three goals. Napoli go to Camp Nou after a 1-1 draw at home with Barcelona, and Lyon will be out to build on a shock 1-0 win over Juventus when they go to Turin. These games are all due to be played on August 7 and 8, days before the mini-tournament in Portugal gets underway. The final will be hosted at Benfica’s Estadio de Luz, instead of the original venue, the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul.
In the four Round of 16 games that have been decided, holders Liverpool were knocked out by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid after extra time. The Reds had thought they had overturned the tie and were heading to the quarter-finals for the third year in a row before Los Rojiblancos scored three times in extra time.
Big money Paris Saint-Germain lost 2-1 at Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of their last 16 tie, however, the French club came back to win 2-0 at home in front of an empty stadium to proceed into the quarter-finals.
Surprise package Atalanta have made it into the last eight on their very first appearance in the competition, the little club from Bergamo somehow escaping the group stage despite losing their first three games. A 1-1 draw at home with Manchester City proved to be the turning point in their Europeam season, before wins over Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb saw them seal second place and set up a last 16 tie with Valencia.
La Dea won 4-1 in the first leg in a game that is said to have been a contributing factor in the spread of the COVID-19 between Italy and Spain, as both nations were badly hit. Several staff and players of both teams contracted the virus. The return leg played behind closed doors ended 4-3 for Atalanta and put them through to the quarter-finals.
In the last Round of 16 tie that was finalised before the pause in play, RB Leipzig knocked out last season’s finalists Tottenham Hotspur, winning 4-0 on aggregate. The convincing victory put the Bundesliga side into the last eight for the first time in their history.
The other ties are finely balanced – except the Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea game, due to the Bavarian club leaving Stamford Bridge with a 3-0 victory in the first leg. It would take a comeback of epic proportions for Frank Lampard’s side to overturn that deficit.
Manchester City meanwhile came back from a goal down to beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the Santiago Bernabeu and bring a slender lead back home to the Etihad, where Pep Guardiola’s men will be looking to reach the final for the first time. In the last fixture to be finalised, Napoli travel to Barcelona with a 1-1 draw neatly tucked away in their pocket after their home leg in the Stadio San Paolo.
As for the players making the headlines, it was all about goals. Norwegian striker Erling Braut Haaland, the son of former Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland, has been a revelation in the competition. Haaland, 20 on July 21, impressed in the group stages for RB Salzburg, scoring eight goals, before joining Borussia Dortmund in the winter. He added two more goals to his tally when Dortmund beat PSG and despite bowing out of the competition in the last 16, Haaland is likely to finish as the second-highest scorer in the 2019-20 edition of the Champions League.
The only player above Haaland at the time of the restart is another Bundesliga hitman, Poland international Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern Munich striker racked up 11 goals by the beginning of March, including four in Bayern’s 6-0 win over Crvena Zvezda. Haaland and Lewandowski have usurped the usual top two in the scoring charts, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who managed just two each in the tournament prior to the shutdown.
If the Golden Boot isn’t up for grabs – bound for Lewandowski’s collection – then the Champions League itself is. Without a standout team, and a one-off knockout format for the quarter-finals, all eight teams that take part will feel they have a genuine chance of lifting the trophy in Lisbon on August 23.
Over in the Europa League, it’s the German city of Cologne hosting the quarter-finals and beyond. As with the Champions League, the rest of the competition will be played under one-off, knockout rules, starting August 10 and running until August 21.
Before then there is the matter of the Round of 16, with most ties having played the first leg – though two fixtures, Inter-Getafe and Sevilla-Roma, have yet to get underway. They will be settled in single-leg games on August 5 and 6.
Antonio Conte’s Inter had dropped off the pace in the Scudetto race before the pause in play and the Nerazzurri would relish a deep run in this tournament. Unfortunately for them, Conte’s record in Europe is poor.
Sevilla, who have lifted this cup on five separate occasions, face a Roma side that scraped past Genk 2-1 on aggregate in the previous round. The Spaniards themselves went through on away goals against Romania club CFR Cluj, and either one of these teams is a credible winner of the Europa League.
Last season’s competition saw the first all-English final since 1972, when Chelsea defeated cross-town rivals Arsenal 4-1 in the Olympic Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan, to qualify automatically for the Champion’s League group stage. The Gunners again took part in this edition and topped their group, which contained the likes of Eintracht Frankfurt, Standard Liege and Vitoria Guimaraes, However, the London club went out on the away goal rule in the round of 32 to Greek side Olympiacos.
Fellow Premier League teams Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers remain in the competition. Wolves, who are enjoying in their first European adventure in 40 years when they were knocked out of the old UEFA Cup by PSV Eindhoven in the first round, faced Arsenal’s conquerors Olympiacos in the first leg of the Round of 16 and take an away goal back to Molineux after a 1-1 draw. United are looking assured of a quarter-final appearance, meanwhile, after they hammered Austrian club LASK 5-0 away from home in the first leg.
In Scotland, Steven Gerrard – who won the UEFA Cup with Liverpool in 2001 – saw his Rangers side lose 3-1 at home to Bayer Leverkusen. It was an inauspicious outcome to the Glasgow clubs first appearance in the latter stages of a tournament since 2011. They lost to PSV Eindhoven in the Europa League’s last 16 then, and face a struggle to avoid a similar fate here.
There are other Bundesliga sides left in the competition too, including last season’s semi-finalists Eintracht Frankfurt. They lost 3-0 at home to Basel in their first leg, while it was a similar story for Wolfsburg, who suffered a 2-1 reverse against Shakhtar Donetsk.
The last tie is poised nicely between Turkish Super Lig side Istanbul Basaksehir and Denmark’s FC Copenhagen – an 88th-minute Edin Visca penalty is all that separates the sides.
It’s all to play for in the goalscoring charts too, with six players tied on six goals each. Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes scored five times in the group stage for Sporting Lisbon before his January move to Manchester United, and compatriot Diogo Jota netted as many for Wolves. Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada, Rangers’ Alfredo Morelos, Sporting’s Andraz Sporar – having appeared for Slovan Bratislava earlier in the tournament – and Visca of Istanbul Basaksehir are in the running too.
The chances are the winner of the Europa League Golden Boot won’t come from the club that lifts the trophy – but this is a competition notoriously hard to predict. There are big teams from England, Spain, Italy and Germany still involved, but nothing is certain.