Champions League draw comes amid Lisbon finale doubt

PARIS • Four months on from the last match in this season’s Champions League, the draw for the final eight will be held today amid ongoing uncertainty about how safe it will be to play out the competition in Lisbon as planned and with four last-16 ties still to be completed.

It was on March 11 that Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) beat Borussia Dortmund 2-0 behind closed doors to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time in four years and their players celebrated wildly with jubilant supporters who had gathered outside the Parc des Princes.

The same night, holders Liverpool was knocked out by Atletico Madrid in front of 52,000 fans at Anfield, a mass gathering which British scientists later said had aided the acceleration of the pandemic.

Within days, football across Europe was suspended and it was only in mid-June that UEFA was able to unveil a way of

finishing its flagship tournament, the main economic driver for European football’s governing body — before the pandemic, it estimated gross commercial revenue from its competitions this season would be €3.25 billion (RM15.72 billion).

And so, the plan is to go to the Portuguese capital for a unique final eight straight knockout tournament from the quarter-finals onwards, starting on Aug 12 and finishing with the final at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz on Aug 23.

It will share the quarter-final and semi-final matches with the Estadio Jose Alvalade, Sporting’s home just along Lisbon’s Segunda Circular ring road.

Last week, lockdown restrictions were reimposed on 19 neighbourhoods across the northern periphery of Lisbon, worryingly close to both venues. The restrictions concern some 700,000 people and will remain in place for at least a fortnight.

That raises questions about whether the final eight will happen as planned, although UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has remained outwardly bullish.

UEFA plans to complete the Europa League with an identical format, a final eight in Germany, with the final due to go ahead in Cologne on Aug 21.

The draws for the quarter-finals and semi-finals of both competitions will be held today, from 1000 GMT. However, before getting that far in either competition, there are a host of last-16 ties to be completed.

In the Europa League last 16, only six of the eight first-leg matches were played in March.

In the Champions League, Atalanta and RB Leipzig are through to the last eight along with PSG and Atletico. The remaining last 16, second legs will see Juventus faces Lyon, Manchester City takes on Madrid, Bayern Munich faces Chelsea and Barcelona meets Napoli.

UEFA has kept open the idea of also moving those games to Portugal if necessary, to the northern cities of Porto and Guimaraes.

While some of the continent’s behemoths still hope to book their spots in Portugal, Atletico and PSG might see the unique format as an ideal opportunity for European glory.

Underdogs Atalanta, from the northern Italian city of Bergamo devastated by the pandemic, is dreaming of going all the way.

The same can be said of RB Leipzig, although they will have to do without star striker Timo Werner after he was sold to Chelsea. — AFP