The announcement was met with cheers around Europe.
In mid-June 2020, UEFA announced that both of its major club competitions, the Champions League and the Europa League, would resume in August, after the COVID-19 crisis halted all sporting events three months prior.
The format, however, would be very different — unique, even. Instead of playing the final rounds over two legs in various club stadiums, they would instead be a series of one-legged affairs, played at neutral venues. In the Champions League’s case this would be in the three main stadiums of Lisbon between August 12 to 23.
The same format applies to the Europa League. Germany is the choice location in this case, with Cologne, Duisburg, Gelsenkirchen and Dusseldorf the chosen cities.
The new formats raise some interesting questions: how will playing at neutral venues affect teams? Are the players going to be match fit? Could there be a shock or two on the cards?
Here’s a look at the teams that could use the new circumstances to their advantage, and cause an upset in August.
Small squads are often criticised in football. What happens if you pick up two or three injuries, or maybe have a couple of suspensions thrown in?
Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo prefers not to think like that. His players follow a strict fitness programme that sees injuries kept to a minimum, and it’s something that could work to their advantage after yet another enforced break between league and cup football.
A small squad also creates high morale. Every player feels involved, and knows exactly what their role is if called upon. This could work in their favour in such unfamiliar surroundings: a tunnel vision that blocks out external surroundings and just focuses on the task in hand.
Wolves’ ability to use their pace and hit teams on the counter attack could be crucial in the latter stages, as they come up across quality opposition. With players like Raul Jiménez and six-goal top scorer in the Europa League, Diogo Jota, not to mention the lightning quick Adama Traore, they’re well poised to launch a genuine bid for silverware.
Getafe are used to proving their doubters wrong. Since their promotion back to La Liga in 2016-17 they have recorded two top-eight finishes, bringing European football along the way: quite the contrast to the instant relegation many predicted a few years ago.
It’s the same story in the Europa League this season. Jose Bordalas’ side came through a tough group to put out last season’s Champions League semi-finalists Ajax. The last 16 pits them against favourites Inter Milan. Most people expect them to lose, but if there’s anyone who can pull off a shock, it’s Getafe.
Currently in the race again for a top-four place in a super competitive La Liga, they have shown once again that they’re not to be messed with. They have Ángel Rodríguez and Jaime Mata up front and their tight defence is the third best in the league, behind the two Madrid clubs.
If they can get the first goal in their game against Inter then expect a cagey affair where they might just come out on top and after that, anything could happen.
Form won’t be so important for this tournament given its five-month break.
This is great news for Lyon, who started their tie against Juventus as heavy underdogs. They were in poor form back in March, having won four out of ten games, while Juventus had just recorded a superb defeat over rivals AC Milan to go top of Serie A.
In normal circumstances, the odds would be stacked against Lyon for their trip to the Allianz Stadium, despite their slender one-goal lead from the first leg. A fierce capacity crowd and a galaxy of Juve stars, including Cristiano Ronaldo, would await them. But these are not normal circumstances: the game will be at a neutral venue, Ronaldo and his team have looked sluggish since the restart, and Lyon will fancy the upset.
If Lyon do make it to the quarter-finals then anything is possible. Star striker Memphis Depay has proved that he’s dangerous at the highest level, while boss Rudi Garcia’s defensive tactics are perfectly suited for the latter stages of high-profile tournaments.
Could Lyon be the first French Champions League winner in 27 years? Stranger things have happened.
‘Real Madrid as dark horses? No way’ might be the words that come to mind when you see their name on this list, but hear me out on this one.
As of June, they were 40/1 to win the Champions League with some betting sites. Not surprising, perhaps, after a poor season in which they’ve lagged behind Barcelona in La Liga and given a series of average Champions League displays. Their 2-1 defeat at home to Manchester City in the first leg of the last 16 was yet another one of those.
But such long odds seem to forget that this is Real Madrid we’re talking about here. They are 13-times European Cup winners, with three-time winner Zinedine Zidane in charge, and a squad littered with multiple winners like Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema. This team knows what it takes to win.
If they can get a 2-0 win over City in the second leg — certainly not impossible, Wolves did the same back in October — then those odds start to look a little exaggerated.
Nobody had heard of Red Bull Leipzig 12 years ago, probably because they didn’t exist. Since then, they’ve climbed the ranks of German football to become one of the major players in the Bundesliga.
By finishing third in 2019, they qualified for the Champions League for the first time and then followed it up by expertly navigating their way through a tough group including Benfica and Lyon. No mean feat, but not many people gave them much hope of beating Spurs, last year’s runners up.
Well, they didn’t just beat them, they embarrassed them – 4-0 was the aggregate score, with Timo Werner getting the crucial penalty in London and Marcel Sabitzer grabbing a double back in Leipzig. While there may be a Werner-shaped hole up front after the forward left for Chelsea, their direct style of play and clinical finishing across the front line still makes them dangerous.
Next up are the quarter-finals and given the events of the last decade, RB Leipzig are used to being the underdogs. They will fear absolutely no one.
The dark horse contingent
Football fans love to back the dark horse, often known as the underdog.
Who can forget the glory of Leicester City winning the Premier League, or the dual shock of Porto winning the Champions League and Greece winning Euro 2004 within a few weeks of each other? It often leads to some of the most dramatic footballing moments, after all.
After the turmoil of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s good to know that football’s top competitions still have these dark horses waiting in the wings. Whether it’s Wolves’ explosive pace on the counter attack, the direct attacking threat of Leipzig or the glorious comeback of famous Real Madrid from the brink of elimination, this season still has the potential to shock us.
Roll on August…