Journey to the centre of the Europa League – Back on the road

“After the final whistle blew across Europe, everything changed. With the future of football now shrouded in doubt, these ties were the last Europa League games to take place until the coronavirus stormclouds finally pass. Surely never have there been such strange circumstances to afflict football; ‘the people’s theatre’. For now the curtain descends, but when will it rise again?” – 13 March 2020

The apocalyptic tone of this column’s last outing reflected a world heading fearfully into lockdown. Few predicted then that professional football’s 2019/20 script would ever be completed.

Ever innovative, resilient – and seriously in hock to the great paymasters in the Sky – the game’s governing bodies have overseen a Lazarus-like resurrection to get the show back on the road in time for the European summer. Swab testing, social distancing and biosecurity have quickly become part of the new reality.

At the forefront of this drive has been the gilded UEFA president’s chambers of Aleksander Ceferin. This week, the comfortingly anonymous Slovene confirmed the planned conclusion of the current season in European competition.

As was first proposed several weeks ago, the Europa League will now be completed in August, with an eight-team straight knockout tournament. Hosted in Germany, these games will be played behind closed doors – as it stands – but Ceferin did not rule out the return of at least some fans.

“We don’t know if only the local fans, no fans, or even the fans from different clubs could travel to the venue,” said the fan of saying ‘fans’.

“As it looks now, we would play without fans. The situation is changing every day, but we will have to decide before the draw.”

That draw – for both the quarter and semi-finals – will take place at UEFA’s HQ in Nyon, on July 10th. However, first the final eight must be decided. To that end, the remaining last 16 second legs will be played on 5th and 6th August.

Somewhat contentiously, though reasonably given the circumstances, two of the ties – Inter Milan v Getafe and Sevilla v Roma – which still have their first leg outstanding will be played as single-leg ties at venues to be confirmed.

UEFA said: “A decision will be made in due course on whether these matches for which the first leg has already been played will be staged at the home team’s venue or in Germany.”

UEFA Europa League 2019/20 schedule
5 August: Last 16
6 August: Last 16
10 August: Quarter-final
11 August: Quarter-final
16 August: Semi-final
17 August: Semi-final
21 August: Final

Some have seen this fresh format as a glimpse into a bold new future, but Ceferin was quick to shoot down any thoughts of such an end-of-season mini-tournament becoming a regular feature in the calendar.

It will be very interesting I’m sure, but we are forced to do it because the leagues need time to finish in July, so we have to do everything in August. That’s due to this Covid crisis and it’s not an idea for the future.

As a result of this ad-hoc reorganisation, Gdansk has been ditched (and switched to next year’s Final host): the final stages will be played across the German cities of Cologne, Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Gelsenkirchen, with Cologne’s RheinEnergieStadion hosting the final. Resultantly, venues for subsequent finals have all agreed to play host a year later than originally scheduled: Sevilla in 2022, followed by Budapest in 2023.

Much like the domestic competitions now beginning to gather pace throughout Europe, some rule tweaks will be afforded, in order to mitigate the abnormal circumstances.

Teams will be allowed to register three new players, provided they were already eligible for the club since the last registration deadline in February. Squads will still contain a maximum of 25 players but cannot include new signings. Five substitutions will also be allowed, in accordance with IFAB’s temporary change to the Laws of the Game.

By August, players should be fully match-sharp as opposed to the largely rusty performances that we have witnessed so far. However, Rangers will be at a distinct disadvantage – as if trailing 1-3 to a sprightly Leverkusen side wasn’t bad enough. Their lack of domestic action, due to the premature curtailment of the SPL, is surely enough to render the second leg a virtual walkover for Peter Bosz’s youthful team.

Other teams, of course, may be hampered by players departing at the end of their deals in June or July, but not being permitted to replace them with new buys. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Chris Smalling, Davide Zappacosta and Nikola Kalinic’s loans are due to end at Roma; Sevilla’s Sergio Reguilon is due back at Real; while Basel and Getafe could both potentially lose a number of players.

These are, though, but minor quibbles when considering the size of the task facing UEFA and the clubs involved in bringing the competition to a climax – albeit a very different one than first imagined when the journey to Gdansk started nearly a year ago. If all is concluded smoothly – which is still very much conditional on the state of each represented nation’s health in mid-August – it should be considered a great achievement against adversity, soured only by the likely lack of fans in stadiums.

Though due their fair share of criticism for a wide range of flaws and inconsistencies, UEFA have worked hard to achieve consensus and held true to their stated commitment to women’s and youth football – unlike several national FAs. Each continental competition in these categories will also be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Ceferin stated:

It was important to send a strong signal that it is possible to complete this season, in a time where women’s sports have suffered substantially. This competition has exciting times ahead with the format change in 2021/2022 and we want to enhance the momentum in the women’s game, not lose it.

Sage words from an administrator who may even emerge from this crisis with his reputation enhanced, though legitimate concerns linger about a failure to halt both European competitions sooner in the face of prevailing medical opinion.

On a busy news day in Nyon, UEFA also confirmed that this term’s Europa League winners will meet their Champions League counterparts in the UEFA Super Cup (originally due to be held in Porto) at the Puskás Aréna in Budapest on 24 September. Finally, dates were set for the preliminary rounds of next season’s Europa League, to be played as single-leg ties. Note that the prelims actually start the day before the 19/20 final.

UEFA Europa League 2020/21 schedule
Preliminary round: 20 August; First qualifying round: 27 August; Second qualifying round: 17 September; Third qualifying round: 24 September; Play-offs: 1 October.

All being well, the group stage draw will then take place in Athens, on 2 October, with games taking place between 22 October and 10 December. And, amid cautious recovery across the continent, hopes are incrementally rising that next season’s journey will be a less bumpy ride than the extraordinary 19/20 campaign.

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