Football: Champions League adapts to a fluid concept - home and away

Atletico Madrid train ahead of a Champions League match against Chelsea at the Arena Nationala stadium in Bucharest on Feb 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Two European football giants, Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, will meet in the Champions League on Tuesday (Feb 23).

The site of this much anticipated game? Bucharest, Romania.

On Wednesday, Manchester City will play German team Borussia Monchengladbach. That game will be in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, where English champions Liverpool beat Germany's RB Leipzig last week.

In the Europa League, the continent's second-tier club championship, neutral sites are now almost as common as home games. Last week, Spanish and English teams played in Italy, and teams from Norway and Germany met in Spain. On Thursday, a week after London club Arsenal played to a draw against Portugal's Benfica in Rome, the teams will meet again in the second leg of their not-home-and-home tie near Athens.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc with international sports schedules for a year, and that chaos continues to have an effect on football's biggest club tournaments. The reasons - government edicts, travel restrictions and quarantine rules - vary around Europe. In some countries, teams are still allowed to travel to and from their opponents' stadiums without issue. In others, countries have blocked entry to visitors from entire nations or drawn up onerous rules that make such travel impractical in a football season when teams often play two or three games a week.

Uefa, the European football governing body that runs the competitions, has decided that if restrictions adversely affect any game, it will be played at a neutral site where travel is permitted. But the decision to play knockout games in places seemingly chosen at random has led to confusion and not a little grumbling.

Real Sociedad, for example, played their "home" leg against Manchester United last week in Turin, Italy, but will play the return match at United's home, Old Trafford, on Thursday.

"It does not seem coherent to me that as the home team, we play on a neutral field, and as a visitor, we do it there," Roberto Olabe, Real Sociedad's director of football, told Diario Vasco. "I would like the return to also be on neutral ground or for Uefa to appoint a single venue for a one-game tie as it did last year."

The displeasure has not been universal. Both Hungary and Romania, whose teams almost never go deep in major European competitions, have been eager to bring the games to their countries - even if, in many cases, they must still be played behind closed doors.

"A match played in the framework of the most prestigious European inter-club competition is a major sporting event, and we offered our support to the organisers as soon as this possibility was raised," the Romanian football federation president, Razvan Burleanu, told Agence France-Presse.

The playing of some games at neutral sites has turned the first tiebreaker for the tournament, the away-goals rule, into something of a paradox. Normally, if a home-and-away tie ends with neither team ahead in total goals, the team with the most goals away from home advances. The logic is that scoring away from home is a little harder in a hostile environment and should get a small bonus.

But home is not the same for everyone. Chelsea, for example, will play their away game not at Atletico's Wanda Metropolitano stadium but on neutral ground in Bucharest. But any goals scored there still will count as away goals only for the English team.

Atletico will then have to defend, or make up, any difference in the score line on Chelsea's home field in London next month.

For the Benfica-Arsenal match-up, the away-goals rule seemed even more puzzlingly arbitrary. The first leg in Rome ended in a 1-1 tie, when Arsenal were considered the away team. Benfica will be the away team in Greece, but if that leg ends in a higher-scoring draw - say, 2-2 - Benfica will advance by having scored more away goals.

(Some European football traditions appear immune to the coronavirus: Serbian club Red Star Belgrade were forced to apologise last week after some of their fans broke into a closed stadium for a Europa League tie against Milan and racially abused Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is of Bosnian descent.)

Football's scheduling problems may not be over, however. The continuing reach of the pandemic has called into question the plans to stage this summer's European Championship in 12 cities around Europe. Traditionally, the event has been a less-sprawling affair hosted by one country or a pair of neighbouring ones.

Given the travel complications laid bare by the club competitions, the idea of national teams flying around Europe seems foolhardy or downright dangerous. Already there are calls for relocating the entire tournament to a single county, probably England, which is already scheduled to host the two semi-finals and the final.

Over the weekend, The Sunday Times of London reported that the British government had told Uefa it was ready and willing to stand in as host of the full schedule of games, although the country's health minister promptly denied that report.

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