One of the rites of...well, not spring exactly, but a rite of reminding you that spring might actually arrive at some point before the light within you has completely extinguished, is the knockout stage of the Champions League. It drops into the sporting scene at the end of February, right after your NFL withdrawal starts to clear up. And given the way the round of 16 is extended over five weeks, by the time it’s over, it is spring...somewhere (not here, as I watch yet another foot of snow pile up outside my window and thoughts of just abandoning my buried car forever stake a more and more secure claim in my mind). With no more than two matches on per matchday, it’s a gentle guide into the spring months, rather than the more furious eight matches per day of the group stage in the fall.
But like anything else at this time, this tradition is somewhat screwed up. And mostly it’s because of the one country that really wanted to be as much of a basketcase as the U.S. when it comes to COVID-19, and that’s the U.K. (it should be mentioned that a good portion of the U.K. didn’t want to be like this, but ended up with Boris Johnson anyway, which actually makes it even more like the U.S.).
When the tournament picks up again on Tuesday, three different first legs will have to be played in neutral sites. That’s Liverpool-RB Leipzig tomorrow, which will be in Budapest, and Chelsea-Atletico Madrid (Bucharest), and Manchester City-Borussia Mönchengladbach (Budapest as well). All three non-English teams will not get a home leg in those matchups, but a game played in a neutral venue.
That’s because both Germany and Spain have issued travel bans to and from the U.K., thanks to the more contagious variant of COVID-19 that has waylaid that country. Further complicating matters is that if the return leg in three weeks takes place in Liverpool for Leipzig, and if the German government has not lifted or altered its travel policies by then, Leipzig would either have to return from the U.K. and quarantine for two weeks — fucking up their Bundesliga schedule — or that game will have to be played at a neutral venue. The same goes for Chelsea and City, should restrictions not change, though they have an extra week to see what the lay of the land will be. The ban in Germany is scheduled to end on Wednesday, but all expectations are that it will be extended. No one’s sure until when.
Which could provide further headaches should two or all three advance. Any U.K.-based team being paired with Bayern Munich or Dortmund in the quarters, should those teams advance, will provide similar headaches. Or if Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Sevilla be drawn with an English team in the next round.
But then, Italy also has restrictions in place on travel from the U.K., so any future meeting with Juventus or Atalanta could provide similar complications. And on and on we go.
Below safety on the list of concerns about all this is the competitive advantage for all these teams. While every stadium being empty removes most of the home-field advantage (thus why away goals are used as a tiebreaker in theory), there is something being taken away from Leipzig, Mönchengladbach, and Atletico here. They do lose not having to travel, and playing and residing in familiar environs with protocols they’ve become accustomed to over the past few months. Now these teams have to fly to a different place, stay in a hotel, and follow whatever that country has laid out in addition to UEFA’s policies. Meanwhile, the English teams might get all of that for their home legs, with the added bonus of being able to accrue “away” goals in games that weren’t really away. Should this come up at the end of any of these ties, you can bet there will be some vociferous complaints. The fairer option would be either to play both legs at neutral venues, which may still happen, or turn each tie into a one-legged one. That latter has not been discussed yet.
Given that, it could slightly mar what looks to be a pretty open last 16. Defending champion Munich have looked more vulnerable at times this season (meaning they win by one goal instead of three, generally). Both of the Spanish giants are a mess. City look to be favorites and unbeatable, but that’s been said before and they find a way to fill their pants in the quarterfinals. PSG is without Neymar for its last-16 tie with Barcelona. Juventus have started to look sharper in recent weeks, and then just lost to Napoli. There is a high level of unpredictability in this edition.
Sadly, that also extends to where all of this will be taking place.