No ‘real’ sup­port for sin­gle-leg ties

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Jim White

Speak­ing af­ter his team had been beaten by Bay­ern Mu­nich on Sun­day night, An­der Her­rera did not hold back. Asked what it was like play­ing in his first Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal in front of an empty sta­dium, the Paris St-Germain mid­fielder was to

Lack­ing emo­tion: An­der Her­rera of Paris St-Germain bat­tles for pos­ses­sion in an empty sta­dium in Lis­bon dur­ing the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal on Sun­day the point. “Foot­ball with­out fans is s---,” he said, his English ap­pro­pri­ately honed af­ter five years in Manch­ester.

These, you sus­pect, were not the words the or­gan­is­ers of the com­pe­ti­tion were hop­ing to hear. What they wanted was public af­fir­ma­tion of how bril­liant the tour­na­ment had been. Uefa has been preen­ing it­self on the suc­cess of its pan­demic-en­forced re­arrange­ment. And, in its cri­sis man­age­ment, it has a point. The fore­short­ened for­mat – sin­gle knock­out games played in one city – was so ex­pertly de­liv­ered we can only as­sume no one from the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment was in­volved in its or­gan­i­sa­tion.

In­deed, in the af­ter­math of such suc­cess has come a grow­ing con­sen­sus that the en­forced ar­range­ments should be­come the fu­ture. Why not create a reg­u­lar, end-of-sea­son knock­out tour­na­ment? It could be moved round Uefa’s con­stituent mem­bers, like an an­nual Euros. You can al­most hear the cash reg­is­ters at the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s head­quar­ters ring­ing as they en­vis­age a bid­ding war en­su­ing to host such a po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive op­por­tu­nity.

In­ter­viewed af­ter the fi­nal, Alek­sander Ce­ferin, the Uefa pres­i­dent, went fur­ther than sim­ply agree­ing that the newly con­densed pro­ce­dure had passed muster in a cri­sis; he in­sisted it had ac­tu­ally pro­duced bet­ter foot­ball. By play­ing in a neu­tral venue, two legs were not needed. And faced with the jeop­ardy of a sin­gle op­por­tu­nity to find a re­sult, Ce­ferin ar­gued that neg­a­tive tac­tics would be ren­dered ob­so­lete; do away with the two-legged method­ol­ogy and open, ex­pan­sive play would be bound to fol­low. What is not to like about the idea of such an end-of­sea­son fun fest? Pro­vided space can be found in the cal­en­dar, surely it is the way for­ward?

Such think­ing, how­ever, fails to take into ac­count the as­pect of the game Her­rera be­lieves to be most im­por­tant: the fans. If, for in­stance, all Cham­pi­ons League matches from the quar­ter-fi­nals on­wards would be staged in one city, how would the host man­age to ac­com­mo­date sup­port­ers from

When you are down from the first leg, the only op­tion left is un­fet­tered at­tack. That is what the fans love

eight clubs, all hop­ing their stay might be ex­tended for up to a fort­night? At the World Cup, matches are spread around a coun­try. No sin­gle conur­ba­tion is ex­pected to find room for such a huge in­flux. Paris and Lon­don apart, there are not many cities in Europe that could ab­sorb eight sets of sup­port­ers con­gre­gat­ing on its streets.

Be­sides, ask the fans of many of the clubs likely to be in­volved in the lat­ter stages of such a com­pe­ti­tion to iden­tify their favourite Euro­pean matches and they are cer­tain to num­ber sec­ond legs high on the list.

Liver­pool sup­port­ers will wax lyri­cal about over­com­ing a three-goal deficit to beat Barcelona in that tu­mul­tuous semi-fi­nal at An­field in May last year. The Tot­ten­ham faith­ful will be equally en­thu­si­as­tic about the turn­around their team en­gi­neered against Ajax in Am­s­ter­dam at the same stage of the 2019 com­pe­ti­tion. Those glo­ri­ous, back-from-the-dead re­cov­er­ies would not have hap­pened if the end-of-sea­son play-off idea was in place.

Just re­mem­ber­ing those matches is to sug­gest Ce­ferin is wrong about the man­ner in which a one-off game in­creases the jeop­ardy. On the con­trary, go­ing into a sec­ond leg af­ter los­ing the first is guar­an­teed to pro­duce a thun­der­ously com­pet­i­tive re­sponse. When you are down, the only op­tion left is un­fet­tered at­tack; trail­ing on ag­gre­gate is in­vari­ably the an­ti­dote to cagi­ness. And if it works, if vic­tory is plucked from the jaws of de­feat at the last, that is when proper his­tory is made. That is when sup­port­ers get their money’s worth. That is what they love.

To para­phrase Her­rera, for us fans, foot­ball with­out sec­ond legs is … sub­stan­tially di­min­ished.

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