Constrained by commercial interests, the UEFA knockout rounds have become a bit of a nightmare

Holding a continental competition in the middle of a global pandemic was always going to be difficult. Yet, with eight matches already moved to neutral venues for the first knockout rounds of both the Champions League and Europa League – and more expected to come in the coming weeks – UEFA’s solution has only served to create a nightmare. Constrained by TV commercial interests, the legitimacy and fairness of the two competitions are now in question.

On Tuesday evening, RB Leipzig fans will be watching their team take on Liverpool in the first leg of their UCL Round of 16 tie. Except, instead of the match taking place in their home stadium (Red Bull Arena in Leipzig, Germany), the game will be played at Puskas Arena in Budapest, Hungary. The reason for this move is due to UEFA’s COVID-19-related regulations. If a team does not receive a travel exemption from either the host or returning country, an alternative venue must be found for the match to take place. This regulation has affected eight knockout matches so far, seven of which include an English team.

For the Champions League, it affects the following matches:

  1. RB Leipzig v Liverpool (moved from Germany to Budapest, Hungary) – 16th Feb
  2. Atlético Madrid v Chelsea (moved from Spain to Bucharest, Romania) – 23rd Feb
  3. Mönchengladbach v Man City (moved from Germany to Budapest) – 24th Feb

For the Europa League, it affects the following matches:

  1. Molde v Hoffenheim (moved from Norway to Vila-real, Spain) – 18th Feb
  2. Real Sociedad v Man United (moved from Spain to Turin, Italy) – 18th Feb
  3. Benfica v Arsenal (moved from Portugal to Rome, Italy) – 18th Feb
  4. Wolfsberg v Tottenham (moved from Germany to Budapest, Hungary) – 18th Feb
  5. Arsenal v Benfica (moved from England to Piraeus, Greece) – 25th Feb

The implications for RB Leipzig, Atlético Madrid, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Molde, Real Sociedad, Benfica, Wolfsberg and Arsenal are that they now do not have a home leg. While this may not seem like a big deal currently because there are no crowds at matches, there is still the issue of travelling. For these teams, what was then a match that would have required no travelling, now involves up to a 3,200-mile round trip. Firstly, this adds another burden to players in an already jampacked season. Secondly, it creates an unfair playing field.

This latter point is of particular concern given the continuation of the away-goal rule. Is it fair to allow the “away” team to enjoy this benefit in a neutral stadium where the “home” team is not playing at “home”? In isolation, no. However, it would also be unfair to suspend the away-goal rule for games played in a neutral stadium if the rule continues to stand for ties that have been unaffected.  

The fairest solution for all then would be to just play one game in a neutral venue without the away-goal rule, utilising a similar format that was used to complete both UEFA competitions for the 2019-20 season. Yet UEFA seemed reluctant to employ this strategy due to TV constraints. Companies spend huge sums of money to win the broadcasting rights for the knockout stages. If each tie were reduced from two matches to one, it would represent a significant loss in revenue. UEFA only employed the single-leg format as a last resort last season to avoid the entire competition being permanently cancelled.

It is another example of commercial interests taking precedent over the legitimacy and fairness of UEFA’s two flagship competitions. How the format plays out over the next three months as countries continue to grapple with coronavirus is anyone’s guess. But it will lead many spectators to place an asterisk against the two teams that do go on to win the respective trophies, whether justified or not.    

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