DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — It’s been five months since the last games, but European continental club soccer is finally back. The Europa League restarts on Wednesday with the round of 16.
Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen are among the teams playing the second legs of matchups suspended in time by the coronavirus pandemic.
Those second legs will still be played at clubs’ home stadiums before the winners head to Germany for a new knockout tournament format. All games will be played without spectators.
Getafe and Inter Milan will be the first teams to play at the UEFA tournament venues when they meet on Wednesday in Gelsenkirchen.
They’re playing their last-16 fixture over a single leg because they didn’t complete a first leg in March before the competition was suspended. Sevilla and Roma play on Thursday in Duisburg.
UNITED WARMS UP
Manchester United should have no trouble booking its place in the quarterfinals. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team holds a 5-0 lead from its first leg against Austrian team LASK Linz going into the second leg in Manchester on Wednesday.
Shakhtar Donetsk is hoping to convert a 2-1 advantage over Wolfsburg into a win, while Istanbul Basaksehir holds a 1-0 lead over Copenhagen.
On Thursday, Wolverhampton tries to keep up its best European run since reaching the final of the then-UEFA Cup in 1972. It’s at 1-1 with Greek club Olympiakos after the first leg.
Bayer Leverkusen is keen not to slip up against Rangers with a 3-1 lead.
Basel has just three days since its last Swiss league game on Monday and must try to cling on to its 3-0 advantage over well-rested Eintracht Frankfurt.
TRAVEL AND TESTING
While domestic leagues across Europe were able to restart amid the pandemic — though France, the Netherlands and Scotland abandoned their seasons — the international travel needed for the Europa League and Champions League was a persistent problem.
Teams are already used to being tested for the coronavirus, and at least one player will miss Europa League games because of a positive test.
Wolfsburg said on Monday that Swiss defender Kevin Mbabu would not travel with the team for its last-16 game against Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk. He tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
Sevilla midfielder Nemanja Gudelj is also likely to miss the last-16 game against Roma following a positive test. He has been in isolation at home but could potentially return if Sevilla makes the quarterfinals.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PROMISE
When UEFA decided in 2015 to give a Champions League spot to the Europa League winner, it seemed like a good idea. This season it’s a headache.
The promise of a place in the Champions League encourages big clubs to take the Europa League seriously. In a season interrupted by the coronavirus, it plays havoc with the calendar.
UEFA has to push back some of the qualifying rounds for 2020-21 until this season’s competitions are resolved and it knows who has the right to take part in which competition.
If the Europa League winner is a team which has already qualified for the Champions League anyway — Manchester United or Inter Milan — then UEFA rules give that Champions League group stage spot to France’s third-place team, Rennes.
The four stadiums in western Germany are an introduction to once-proud clubs going through tough times.
Sevilla and Roma meet in Duisburg, which has a 31,500-seat stadium but only a third-tier club team with chronic financial problems.
Money worries are also a problem for Schalke, which plays at the stadium in the industrial city of Gelsenkirchen. It’s slashing its budget after incomes shrunk when it regularly missed out on the Champions League.
The stadium in Düsseldorf is home to a club just relegated to the second tier.
The final is being played on Aug. 21 in Cologne, whose fans were happy to stay in the Bundesliga last season after a mixed recent record. That’s still not a patch on Cologne’s golden era when it fought for league and cup titles from the 1960s to 1980s.
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