None of this is normal.
Empty stadiums, artificial crowd noise, muted socially distant celebrations are all apart of the new reality. But with each league slowly trickling back things start to feel a little more like they did before. On Wednesday UEFA announced that the Champions League would finally return on 7 August. This will be the last of the major European competitions to make its return.
August is usually when European clubs are finishing training camps and getting ready to start a new season. It’s not typically a time that a select number of sides will be gearing up for the business end of Europe’s premier club competition. Though, again, none of this is normal. The tournament isn’t going to look like the Champions League we know. It will resemble a summer tournament, more than it will a year-long league. Two-legged fixtures will be replaced by single-elimination matches at a neutral location in Lisbon, Portugal. The remaining last 16 matches, along with the quarterfinals, semifinals and final will all be crammed into a two and a half week window. The final will be played on 23 August.
— UEFA (@UEFA) June 18, 2020
This format will be a challenge for any of the teams still involved. However, league seasons will be wrapped up by the start of August. Spain will finish on 19 July, Italy on 2 August, and England on 26 July (France cancelled their season). The Bundesliga finishes a week from Saturday. For the two remaining German sides, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, this presents a rather unique problem. What effect will the time off have?
The challenge of match fitness
There isn’t much precedent for this situation. Bayern and Leipzig jumped back into the Bundesliga after a two-month absence but to look at those games as predictors fails to consider that the rest of the league was in the same boat. Everyone was out of practice. In August the two German clubs will be facing clubs carrying momentum from their domestic leagues straight into the Champions League.
Under Pep Guardiola, Bayern regularly won the League in record time. This created instances where Bayern took their foot off the gas during the back end of the season. It was very hard to flip that competitive switch back on in Munich. As a result the club never made it further than the semi-finals during Guardiola’s reign, and there were some pretty embarrassing defeats sprinkled in there. Now, in 2020, Bayern doesn’t have a competitive match to play until the DFB Pokal final against Bayer Leverkusen, then another month before they take on Chelsea.
RB Leipzig will have a little more to play for between now and the end of the season. Their hold on third place is tenuous. Just three points up on Leverkusen and four points ahead of Borussia Mönchengladbach. But after the 27th of June, Leipzig won’t have a competitive game until the quarter finals begin. This is all uncharted territory for Die Roten Bullen, it’s their first time in the Champions League. They have spent most of this campaign playing like they have something to prove. The beating they gave to Tottenham in the last 16 shows they aren’t afraid of anyone at this stage. But over a month without any competitive fixtures allows for plenty of time for complacency to creep in.
The challenge for both Bayern and Leipzig will be avoiding that complacency. It’s likely that both clubs will set up friendlies in the month leading up to the Champions League’s return. Usually in July Bayen would be playing lower-level competition, usually to help a smaller club financially, or for a good bit of PR. Bayern played amateur side FC Rottach-Egern this past summer and won 23-0. It will be interesting to see if the Rekordmeister choose to set up friendlies with bigger clubs this summer to try and generate a little competitive edge. Leipzig will need to do the same as they’ll face an even longer layoff than Bayern will before resuming competitive matches in August.
This strange season has thrown Leipzig another curveball. With the resumption of the Champions League coming after the start of the transfer window, Timo Werner has opted not to play in the knockout stages with his former team. The German international will complete his move to Chelsea in July and train with them in preparation for the 2020-21 Premier League season. This has irked some who think Werner is abandoning Leipzig. The club is three wins away from winning the Champions League, but he has decided his future with Chelsea is more important. To be fair, it makes sense, and it’s not his fault that the Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the European calendar. He, and presumably Chelsea, would rather not risk injury at the onset of their next season. It’s a cold shoulder to give your former club, but it’s also practical.
It’s not all bad news
While there will be plenty of challenges for Bayern and Leipzig, there are a few positives they can take from UEFA’s announcement. The first is obviously injuries. Both teams, especially Bayern in recent years, have had trouble coping with the usual bumps and bruises. A month off between matches should give the German sides plenty of R&R. Robert Lewandowski was injured just before COVID-19 brought the sports world screeching to a halt. The two-month layoff allowed him to get fit and he stayed on the pitch and looks set to win Europe’s golden boot. Small nagging muscle injuries can be treated during the break, as well. Those types of injuries tend to flair up if not given proper time to fully heal. Bayern and Leipzig will both have plenty of time.
Another possible benefit is the format of the competition itself. Single elimination allows for more randomness. Over two legs, the better side usually rises to the top. But in a single match, anything can happen. This format is generally more of a blessing for the underdog. If Péter Gulácsi is in the form of his life in goal, or Julian Nagelsmann can outsmart his opposite number, then anything is possible. The football itself might be more cautious and less open, but teams are going to be careful not to allow one mistake to ruin their chance at a major trophy. Bayern features seven players on their roster that own a World Cup winners medal, so there is plenty of experience there to handle these single-elimination matches. Winning the Champions league will require both that luck and experience.
Naturally, all of this is conjecture. No one knows how this will play out in August. Leipzig and Bayern might be rusty, they might be fresh. Their opposition might be banged up with injuries. A fluke goal in the 90th minute of a semi final could set up a final of Atalanta vs RB Leipzig. No one would have predicted that a year ago.
The only thing left to do is kick-off and see what happens. None of this is normal.