Lisbon coronavirus spike leaves Champions League under threat again

LISBON • Nearly four months after it was suspended, UEFA’s plans to complete the Champions League in Portugal are once again under threat from the coronavirus, even if the organisers themselves insist there is “no Plan B”.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin (picture) claimed on Tuesday follow- ing a meeting with Portuguese Prime Minister (PM) Antonio Costa that there was no need to make alternative arrangements to the planned “final eight” straight knockout format for the quarter-finals onwards, with all games set to take place in Lisbon.

Costa himself said “all measures are being taken to ensure that we will host this tournament in a safe and secure manner”.

However, the ongoing health situation in Portugal casts some doubt on those pronouncements.

On Wednesday, lockdown restrictions were reimposed on 19 neighbourhoods across the northern periphery of Lisbon where Covid-19 outbreaks persist. The

restrictions concern some 700,000 people and will remain in place for at least two weeks.

With an average of 321 per day, the number of new cases being recorded in Portugal grew by a third in June compared to the previous month.

The majority of new cases are in the Lisbon area, and it is the capital which is due to host the latter stages of the Champions League, starting with the quarter-final on Aug 12 and concluding with the final on Aug 23.

Alarm bells may be ringing within European football’s governing body, especially as the Champions League was suspended in March and remains frozen in the last-16 stage, which has not been completed.

Costa has done his best to reassure Ceferin and insisted in interview with Spanish daily La Vanguardia that the lockdown measures “do not concern the centre of Lisbon, where the Champions League will be staged”.

However, the locked-down neighbourhood of Santa Clara borders that of Lumiar, the area in which the Estadio Jose Alvalade is situated. The home of Sporting Lisbon is scheduled to share hosting of the

Champions League matches with Benfica’s nearby Estadio da Luz. Costa’s comments have not gone down well with local residents.

Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig and Atalanta all qualified for the quarter-finals before the competition was suspended in March, and UEFA was eventually forced to come up with a new format to finish it.

The remaining last 16, second legs will see Juventus faces Lyon, Manchester City takes on Real Madrid, Bayern Munich faces Chelsea and Barcelona comes up against Napoli.

It is hoped those matches — set forAug7and8—will not need to be played on neutral ground, but they could also be moved to Portugal, with UEFA standing by to spread the matches around the country, in Lisbon, as well as in the northern cities of Porto and Guimaraes.

A fortnight ago, when the format was announced by UEFA, Ceferin expressed hope that some fans might be able to attend the matches. That now seems improbable.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, the competing teams would also perhaps have second thoughts about travelling to Lisbon. — AFP