New format, new Champions League winners?
Champions League returns with one-legged ties, but suffers complications as Atletico hit by Covid-19 woes
With just two former winners left in the competition, no Cristiano Ronaldo and no fans, the Champions League moves to Lisbon this week for the start of the "Final Eight" mini-tournament with the intriguing prospect that a new format could lead to a new name on the trophy.
However, the shadow of the coronavirus looms large after Angel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko from Atletico Madrid, one of the teams involved in Portugal, had tested positive on Saturday.
"The first team and members of the coaching staff underwent new PCR tests yesterday, the result of which has been negative in all of them, after the appearance of two positive cases on Saturday," Atletico said, after conducting further tests yesterday.
Correa and Vrsjalko, who was injured, had been placed in isolation at home. Both were asymptomatic, added Atletico.
The positive cases had earlier delayed Atletico's original plan to travel to Portugal yesterday, and they will now do so today.
Barcelona and Bayern Munich, with five European Cups each, are in contention for the title, but only one will reach the semi-finals - they meet each other in the quarter-finals at the Estadio da Luz on Saturday morning (Singapore time).
With Barca desperate for more European success before Lionel Messi, who turned 33 in June, moves on, and Bayern looking a fearsome proposition led by Robert Lewandowski, that promises to be a thrilling tie despite the lack of supporters.
But maybe this time the glory will go to someone new altogether. Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain both have reason to believe this will be the year they are rewarded for a decade of decadence fuelled by the immense wealth of their owners in the Gulf.
"The big clubs lift the titles," was how City boss Pep Guardiola put it after his team knocked out Real Madrid last Friday.
Perhaps Atletico, back where they lost the 2014 final to Real, will at last go the extra step under Diego Simeone, or perhaps there will be a shock winner in RB Leipzig, Atalanta or even Lyon.
At this level, Atalanta are the minnows. It would be a remarkable story if they won the trophy in their first appearance in the Champions League, after the terrible suffering of their hometown Bergamo during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is as a direct result of the coronavirus that Uefa has taken the Champions League, which restarted last Friday after five months in hibernation because of the pandemic, to the Portuguese capital for the latter stages.
Travel restrictions and a lack of time to get the season finished meant playing all games in the same place, and doing away with two-legged ties in the quarter-finals and semi-finals was the only solution.
The final will be played at Benfica's Estadio da Luz on Aug 23.
The "Final Eight" will start at the same ground on Thursday morning (Singapore time) when Atalanta face PSG.
Whoever wins that will meet Leipzig or Atletico for a place in the final, while City or Lyon will meet Bayern or Barcelona in the other semi-final.
It is just a shame the champions will be crowned in an empty stadium.
"I'm an optimistic person, and my great hope is that spectators will be able to return to our matches as soon as possible," said Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin recently.
In the meantime, there are strict health guidelines in place, with teams subject to a strict testing regimen and social distancing rules, and the number of people allowed inside grounds kept to a minimum. - AFP
Thursday, 3am (S'pore time):
- Atalanta v Paris Saint-Germain
- RB Leipzig v Atletico Madrid
- Barcelona v Bayern Munich
- Manchester City v Lyon