Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Champions League knockout phase to begin without crowds



Champions League knockout phase to begin without crowds

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Barcelona’s forward Lionel Messi vies with Paris Saint-Germain’s defender Marquinhos (left) during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on March 8, 2017. LLUIS GENE/AFP

Champions League knockout phase to begin without crowds

This week the glamour of a match between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain heralds the dawn of the Champions League knockout phase, but the world’s most lucrative and compelling club competition returns still overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis as well as by looming changes to the tournament itself.

Four years ago, when PSG last visited the Camp Nou, they arrived with a 4-0 first-leg advantage and left eliminated after a 6-1 defeat on a night the 96,000 spectators present will never forget.

On February 16, Neymar, now with the Parisians, will miss the return to his old home due to injury. The fans will be missing, too, yet the spectacle of a huge European game going ahead behind closed doors due to Covid-19 restrictions is no longer so unusual.

What is new is the extent to which travel bans are creating havoc and have already forced UEFA to switch several ties to neutral venues.

RB Leipzig have been denied home advantage in their first leg against Liverpool on February 16 due to a ban by German authorities on travellers from the UK.

That game now goes ahead in Budapest, which will also host Borussia Moenchengladbach against Manchester City the following week.

Similar restrictions on travellers from Britain entering Spain have forced Atletico Madrid’s first leg at home to Chelsea to be moved 3,000 kilometres to Bucharest.

“A last-16 Champions League tie is a huge event for Borussia Moenchengladbach, which we now cannot play in our own ground or with any fans in attendance,” admitted Gladbach CEO Stephan Schippers.

“Nevertheless, we’re pleased that we can play the game at all and we are of conscious of the overall situation.”

It may be football in an empty stadium, often on neutral ground, but the Champions League knockout stages remain the absolute pinnacle of the club game, the theatre in which so many memorable matches have been played in recent times.

Even last year’s ‘Final Eight’ behind closed doors in Lisbon produced Bayern Munich’s stunning 8-2 mauling of Barcelona and Manchester City’s shock loss to Lyon.

But this time it is impossible to ignore the spectre of change hanging over the Champions League, with UEFA clearly prepared to cede more and more ground to the continent’s biggest clubs in order to prevent a breakaway ‘Super League’ coming to fruition.

There is widespread support for plans to revamp the group stage from 2024, as has been reported across the continent in recent days.

It is understood those plans would see the number of clubs taking part in the group stage increase from 32 to 36, with teams playing 10 group games instead of six in a so-called ‘Swiss system’ – one pool of 36 teams, with nobody playing anyone else more than once.

Teams will have to play as many as 19 games to win the trophy, compared to 13 now.

The proposals are backed by the European Leagues organisation, which recently said “the so-called ‘Swiss Model’ is an improvement compared to the more radical proposals that emerged in 2019”, of four groups of eight.

Lesser of two evils?

The changes have been championed by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli in his role as head of the European Club Association.

“Everything should be based on sporting merit, but we should remember where our fans of the future are. It is our strong view that more European matches are welcome,” Agnelli said recently.

“Do we want to approach the future with a nostalgic or a progressive view,” he pondered. “I think it is our duty to think ahead and guarantee that football remains the best sport in the world.”

A reformed Champions League is, in reality, the lesser of two evils compared to the possibility of a Super League.

For despite the talk of sporting merit, Agnelli’s Juventus and Europe’s other financial heavyweights want to entrench a system that guarantees them access to the biggest competition there is.

That is already the case.

The only club from outside the so-called ‘Big Five’ leagues involved in this season’s last 16 is Porto, twice European champions and still the last club from outside those elites to win the Champions League, in 2004.

It would be a considerable surprise if they eliminated Agnelli’s Juventus, for whom Cristiano Ronaldo is still the leading light at age 36.

So much about the Champions League is predictable, but so much remains unpredictable, especially as the aging Ronaldo and Lionel Messi approach the end of their glittering careers.

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh placed in two-week lockdown

    The government has decided to place Phnom Penh in lockdown for two weeks, effective April 14 midnight through April 28, as Cambodia continues to grapple with the ongoing community outbreak of Covid-19, which has seen no sign of subsiding. According to a directive signed by Prime Minister

  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Hun Sen: Stay where you are, or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that the two-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Kandal provincial town Takmao could be extended if people are not cooperative by staying home. “Now let me make this clear: stay in your home, village, and district and remain where

  • Businesses in capital told to get travel permit amid lockdown through One Window Service

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration has issued guidelines on how to get travel permission for priority groups during the lockdown of Phnom Penh, directing private institutions to apply through the municipality's One Window Service and limit their staff to a mere two per cent. In

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Ministry names types of business permitted amid lockdown

    The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training singled out 11 types of business that are permitted to operate during the lockdown of Phnom Penh and Takmao town, which run through April 28. Those include (1) food-processing enterprises and slaughterhouses; (2) providers of public services such as firefighting, utility and