The UEFA Europa League has a finale nobody could have foreseen when the group stage kicked off on 19 September last year. Yet this unique version of the competition’s closing stages – the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final compressed into a 12-day tournament in the west of Germany – is a reflection of the extraordinary times we are living in.
Only once before has a UEFA club competition concluded so late. It was when the 1962 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final between Atlético de Madrid and Fiorentina required a replay that was staged in Stuttgart on 5 September and won 3-0 by the Spanish side, 118 days after the initial 1-1 draw in Glasgow. The COVID-19 pandemic that brought this season’s UEFA club competitions to a sudden stop in mid-March has necessitated a mini-tournament with a different feel.
The decision to stage it within a narrow swathe of western Germany – in the cities of Cologne, Duisburg, Düsseldorf and Gelsenkirchen – plus the adoption of a single-match format in place of the traditional home-and-away template, were shaped by one overriding wish: to minimise risk by limiting travel and keeping a high level of control over matches and accommodation.
Another important factor, given that the 2020/21 campaign is not far around the corner, is the desire to soften the burden on players. If some good judges suspect the single-tie format could mean a more cautious tactical approach from some teams, the fitness factor is another point of intrigue. Coaches can avail themselves of five substitutes in the remaining knockout matches as well as an additional substitute during extra time. But, unlike at the business end of a normal season, players will arrive in Germany with diverse recent match-loads in their legs.
It was a point that Wolfsburg coach Oliver Glasner elaborated on when speaking before the conclusion of his side’s round of 16 tie with Shakhtar Donetsk. “It’s difficult to gauge it now because no one has ever had this situation before, with everything ending differently,” he said. “Now we have different start dates, different lengths of break, different end dates of the various leagues and different holidays.”
Speaking on the day of the draw for the knockout stages, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær offered a positive slant on the situation. “I’m looking forward to it; it’s like a mini-tournament. I’ve been involved in a European Championship and a World Cup, so we’ll be living tight together, living abroad. It’s exciting.”
This is an event that will take place without supporters in the four stadiums but with millions watching worldwide. That puts the onus on the media conveying the action across the globe – and presents unique challenges too. Peter Drury, who commentates on UEFA’s club competitions for BT Sport in the UK, will notice the absence of encounters in the tunnel area that provide “little bits of last-minute information”. And it has taken some getting used to commentating on matches without fans in the stadium.
“The commentator essentially rides the wave of the noise and when there is no noise, there isn’t a wave to ride,” says Drury. “When a commentator shouts as a goal is scored, it’s because tens of thousands of other people are shouting at the same time. So there’s a really odd dynamic over the scoring of a goal because, in a sense, there’s no need to shout. But then, if you didn’t, the viewer would say, ‘Well, where is the emotion?’”
At least Germany will provide a fine setting for those watching from home. There have been finals at two of the venues before: Düsseldorf hosted Borussia Mönchengladbach’s two UEFA Cup wins in the 1970s (albeit at the city’s old Rheinstadion) in addition to the 1981 European Cup Winners’ Cup decider. Gelsenkirchen has staged both a Champions League final – in 2004, won by Porto against Monaco – and, at the old Parkstadion, Schalke’s 1997 UEFA Cup final first leg against Internazionale (the German side went on to win the tie). Then there’s Cologne, host city for the final on 21 August, which is the home of FC Köln and welcomed five 2006 FIFA World Cup matches.
The question of who will reach that final is a tricky one to answer given the circumstances. One coach interviewed after the draw, Basel’s Marcel Koller, suggested we might see more surprises because of the single-leg factor: “I think if you play against top teams ten times, you’ll lose one or two more. In one game, lots can happen– if not anything.”
This is uncharted territory for everyone. Thankfully, since April, when it became clear that a new format was needed to conclude the campaign, the cooperation of clubs, leagues and national associations has helped make Plan B a reality. The uncertainties go on in the wider world but football can once more show its value in people’s lives as this UEFA Europa League season finally reaches its climax.