UEFA meets on Thursday to put the seal on plans that will shape football’s post-lockdown landscape and pave the way for the 2019-20 season to finally be drawn to a conclusion.
President Aleksander Ceferin and the governing body’s executive committee will sit down via videoconference to discuss the latest picture painted by the coronavirus pandemic, and what is the best approach for European football in a bid to keep leagues, rights holders and supporters all happy.
Having already used these meetings previously to take sizeable measures – such as postponing Euro 2020 – it is expected that another set of decisions, with serious implications for some clubs, will be revealed.
Talks will largely revolve around UEFA’s prized possession – the Champions League – and how to, firstly, bring the current competition to a conclusion, and, secondly, how to process qualification for next season.
The first strand of business already appears to have been loosely decided following a preliminary meeting on Tuesday including the general secretaries of UEFA’s 55 member states.
It is understood that the Champions League final, the final act of the 2019-20 season, will take place in Istanbul on August 29. It is how teams get there that is up for discussion.
One school of thought is for the remaining ties to be played as usual; ties played out over two legs at both the quarter-final and semi-final stage, before the showpiece. The second would see all ties reduced to one-off clashes.
Decisions have to be made in regards to the Europa League, too. This is a little trickier – with some last-16 ties yet to even have its first leg played after being wiped out by the early spread of COVID-19.
One aspect that does seem certain is that these ties will be played after leagues across Europe have been able to reach a conclusion, most likely by July 31.
In that respect, some of Europe’s top leagues are primed better than others to play out their campaigns.
Germany are ahead of the curve and out on their own in terms of preparations for top-flight football to return.
Bundesliga clubs are already back in training, with the likes of Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski preparing for the restart while practicing social distancing in training. Players are working in groups of five, and working on the basis that they will be back on the pitch come either May 9 or 16.
That date is set to be confirmed on a conference call between the 36 clubs in the country’s top two divisions on Thursday.
Behind them, three of the other top five leagues are still more than a month away.
In Spain, LaLiga president Javier Tebas has stated that a return to action on May 28 is the most optimistic outlook.
As has so often been the case throughout this crisis, however, best possible scenarios rarely come to fruition, with a return to action in June the most likely event.
Even then, some of the football on offer would be unrecognizable, with both Real Madrid and Barcelona looking to avoid using the Bernabeu and Nou Camp respectively.
The pair hope to use their B-team grounds, which have a much smaller capacity, in order to reduce the psychological impact of playing in front of vast empty stadiums.
They remain committed to finishing the season in Italy, too, where the lockdown is due to be lifted on May 3.
Clubs are hoping to resume training the day after, though their ability to do so has yet to be confirmed. With matches suspended since March 9 in Serie A, there are still a full 12 rounds of fixtures to be played.
In England, June 8 has been mooted as the pencilled-in return date for the top flight.
The Premier League has been looking at staging games in hubs – using one venue for several fixtures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
While there are still concerns held by clubs over forcing an end to the season – with some worried about the number of obstacles to overcome in order to get matches played behind closed doors – there is a determination to ensure the season takes its natural course.
France are a bit further behind. Having voted to ensure the season is completed on April 10, Ligue 1’s possible return date has been suggested as June 17.
Having already been hit by a pay freeze by their biggest rights holders beIN Sports, the need to finish the campaign is strong from a financial point of view.
But with no sign of lockdown being lifted until May 11 at the very earliest, the aim of having the season concluded by July 25 is tight.
In a number of countries it is unlikely that the season will conclude at all, especially given UEFA are expected to ease their stance on European qualification.
Having originally indicated that leagues could be penalised for attempting to abandon their season early, the governing body’s stance looks set to soften at Thursday’s discussions.
That paves the way for the likes of Belgium, Holland and Scotland’s top flights to end their campaigns prematurely without fear of losing places in continental competitions.
In Holland, the announcement that the season is likely to be scrapped was made after the government extended its ban on organised events until September 1.
With Ajax top only on goal difference ahead of AZ Alkmaar, legal battles are expected, but given the expected announcement from UEFA, it will not harm the country’s European entries at least.
The Scottish Premiership is expected to ratify a decision to cancel their season, too, in order to begin the next campaign and unlock prize funds.
That would hand Celtic their ninth title in a row and relegate Hearts from the top flight. The decision was reached after a controversial voting period, in which Dundee performed a U-turn in order to confirm the decision to bring the season to an end.
Doing so would lead to a scenario where Rangers are still competing simultaneously in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons given the fact they are still in the Europa League.
With European fixtures not due to resume until August, the Scottish Premiership hopes to kick off the 2020-21 campaign at the same time.
Belgium, who were the first country to announce the decision to end their season, have scheduled a meeting for Monday, where their call is expected to be ratified following Thursday’s UEFA session.
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