Champions League: Single-leg knockout matches the new normal?

Without the comfort of home games or the restraints of away matches, the shackles were off, which made for much more exciting viewing. It also helped finishing the competition quicker and in a shorter window.

Bayern Munich added a sixth European crown at the Estadio da LUZ in Lisbon.   -  AP

Football has seen quite a few changes over the last few years: from one-player kickoffs and the use of technology, goal line and the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), to the recent Covid-19-enforced five substitutions and mid-half drinks breaks.

Some, like the kickoff and goal-line technology, have seen little or no negative reactions from coaches, players and fans. Others, like the use of VAR and the implementation of new handball rules, have brought out mixed opinions.

The latest changes to long-standing formats of the game were brought by UEFA in its European competitions. With two-leg home and away knockout games logistically impossible in a world dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, it decided to finish both the Champions League and the Europa League in one city: behind closed doors, with one-off games and in neutral venues.

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Without the comfort of home games or the restraints of away matches, the shackles were off and teams were free to play their natural game irrespective of the opposition.

Lyon is the best example of that. The French side, which finished seventh and outside European spots in Ligue 1, stuck to its natural attacking game. Manchester City was comfortably brushed aside and, if not for wasteful finishing, it would’ve sent Bayern Munich packing, too.

For the neutrals, it made for much more exciting viewing, and ties didn’t need 180-plus minutes to settle on the winner. This also helped in finishing the competitions quicker and in a shorter window.

With the current football seasons across Europe continuing to deal with the impact of the virus outbreak on recently concluded seasons, is this something UEFA should stick with?

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While Ligue 1 has restarted, the other big leagues in Europe will soon resume — with a negligible break between seasons. The English league, for example, has a little more than a month’s gap between the final game of last season and the first game of the next.

Domestic cup competitions, international breaks and teams losing players to quarantine or isolation after a Covid-19 positive result will see further disruptions.

With countries having different, constantly changing rules as they adapt to try and contain the spread of the virus, having players travel for away games could be troublesome — besides posing the obvious risk of a player contracting coronavirus.

Since this is an evolving situation for countries, it would be a wise move if UEFA stuck to the single-leg knockout format for the coming season, and beyond, as it will ease the fixture congestion for teams competing on multiple fronts.

There is also the risk of players burning out as a packed season will be followed by the postponed EUROs next year.

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Invincible Bayern

Bayern Munich has had a season of two halves. At one point, it was close to losing its grip on the Bundesliga crown and struggling to challenge for the Champions League title.

The 5-1 league defeat to unfancied Eintracht Frankfurt in November was the final straw and Niko Kovač was shown the door immediately. His assistant Hansi Flick was asked to steady the ship while the management went in search of Kovač’s successor.

The interim manager, however, delivered a debut coaching season that will go down as one of the finest the football world has ever seen.

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In his first game, der Klassiker, he saw his side beat Borussia Dortmund 4-0 in a way that the hierarchy and fans have grown used to: high-octane pressing, quick passes to transition from defence to attack, and keeping control of the game by rotating possession.

If critics cited the “uncompetitive” nature of Bayern’s league and cup wins, Flick shut them down on Europe’s biggest stage. He took the side to the final without losing a single game. Bayern steamrolled opponents, peaking with the 8-2 humiliation of Barcelona in the quarterfinals.

Hansi Flick, asked to steady the ship while the Bayern management went in search of a successor for Niko Kovac, delivered a debut coaching season that will go down as one of the finest the football world has ever seen.   -  Reuters

 

Up against a Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) side that had the tools to hurt Bayern’s style, Flick remained bullish of his side’s preparation.

“In our games over the last 10 months, we’ve always tried to impose our style on the opposition and always played with a high line,” Flick said before the final. “Ultimately, we’ve got results doing that, so we won’t change too much on that score.”

Mia San Mia — we are who we are — is the club’s motto and he stuck to it.

The players delivered as asked. Constant pressing, lightning-quick attacks and the usual high defensive line: nothing changed. Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Ángel Di Maria were largely kept quiet as Bayern’s experience at the grand stage took it to a sixth UCL title.

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Parisians show European pedigree

Ever since the significant Qatari investment in PSG, the final goal has always been the big-eared trophy. For all its domestic dominance, the Paris side stumbled in Europe season after season. Managers came and went, expensive players were constantly added, but its fortunes remained unchanged — until this season.

Thomas Tuchel has built a side that depends less on its star forwards and more on team chemistry and style. Mbappe and Neymar did not find the back of the net in Lisbon but were central in PSG’s run to the final. The team creativity came from Di Maria’s boots, and when he was suspended, others took his place.

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It might have been PSG’s first appearance in the final, but the team played like they had been there before.

The club’s philosophy of pursuing stars saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic become the alpha male and pushed Kingsley Coman — the youngest player to play for the club — out.

Six years later, it was the Parisian boy that struck the decisive blow against it.

At PSG, the yearly scramble to add expensive players is being replaced by a strategy of picking players that fit the system in place. Ander Herrera is the prime example of that. One of the side’s best players this season, he was an unfancied signing that few foresaw.   -  AP

 

But things are changing at PSG. The yearly scramble to add expensive players is being replaced by a strategy of picking players that fit the system in place.

Ander Herrera is the prime example of that. One of the side’s best players this season, he was an unfancied signing that few foresaw. He divided opinions at Manchester United and decided to move on when multiple managers could not get the best out of him. Under Tuchel, however, he is back to his Athletic Bilbao best. And he isn’t the only one.

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Leandro Paredes might have moved from Russia, but the Argentine has barely looked out of place among Europe’s best. Idrissa Gueye, a good player in an underperforming Everton side, has become the defensive shield that keeps the PSG defence at ease.

Gueye’s struggles with injuries saw Marquinhos pushed into the midfield and first-time viewers would find it impossible to know he was playing out of position.

For all the negative publicity PSG has garnered over the years, this is a team in evolution that has taken a new step with its first European final.

It may have not won the title, but PSG will come knocking again. The Parisians are also-rans no more.