The knockout stages of the Europa League have been thrown into disarray after two of the last-16 fixtures were postponed the day before the first legs were scheduled to take place as the coronavirus outbreak continues to take its toll on the football calendar across the continent.
While Manchester United’s fixture against the Austrian side Lask Linz and Wolves’ meeting with Olympiakos are still set to take place behind closed doors on Thursday night after the Greek side’s players all tested negative for Covid‑19, it is understood Uefa is considering what action to take to ensure the competition can still be completed despite the widespread disruption.
The all-Basque Copa del Rey final between Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad and the French League Cup final between Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon – both scheduled for April – were postponed on Wednesday as the outbreak was confirmed as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, while it was confirmed Rangers’ second leg against Bayer Leverkusen next week will be also held behind closed doors after the first leg at Ibrox on Thursday.
The Getafe president, Ángel Torres, admitted earlier that the Spanish club refused to travel to Milan for their Europa League tie against Internazionale even if it led to their expulsion from the competition, while Roma’s flight from Italy was not authorised to land by Spanish authorities. Both were subsequently postponed, with Uefa’s statement adding “further decisions on the two matches will be communicated in due course”.
At this stage it is understood there are no plans to play the ties at a neutral ground as Uefa is keen to maintain the competition’s two‑legged format if possible. Yet with the quarter-finals draw due to take place next Friday, it remains likely the knockout stages will be subject to further delay.
Wolves condemned the decision to allow their match in Greece to go ahead despite concerns over player welfare after the Olympiakos and Nottingham Forest owner, Evangelos Marinakis, tested positive for Covid-19, with Nuno Espírito Santo’s squad flying to Athens on Wednesday despite their manager’s misgivings.
“We have all the insurance in terms of health situations and we are OK,” he said. “I think it will be better for the competition [for the game to be postponed] but now it’s over. We are focused, we are ready.”
Arsenal have emphasised that preparations for the game at Brighton on Saturday will continue as planned despite the cancellation of their match with Manchester City on Wednesday. That fixture was postponed late on Tuesday after a handful of players, as well as four staff, were advised to self-isolate after coming into close contact with Marinakis 12 days previously.
Marinakis revealed this week that he had been diagnosed with coronavirus and, given he had circulated in the director’s box and players’ areas before, during and after their win at the Emirates Stadium on 27 February, Arsenal took all necessary precautions.
Wednesday, which became a day off for the squad, passed without alarms or further developments: nobody at Arsenal has tested positive for Covid‑19, nor have any symptoms been reported. The period of self-isolation will end in time for the affected players to join the training session on Friday and, given Thursday would have at best been a light day of warm-down work if the City game had gone ahead, there are few concerns that Arsenal will have been significantly disadvantaged before visiting the Amex Stadium.
“The risk is considered extremely low with the self-isolation period for those players ending on Thursday,” Brighton said in a statement.
Meanwhile the entire Forest squad also tested negative for the virus after Marinakis attended their Championship fixture against Millwall last Friday. It is not known whether their game at Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday will go ahead.
United will play behind closed doors for the first time in their history on Thursday night and Ole Gunnar Solskjær admitted he would support any decision to suspend both the Europa League and Premier League indefinitely in order to control the outbreak.
“I would understand, yes,” he said. “It is up to the experts to decide, and the main concern must be the health of the general public and the decision that is made, ‘we will back’. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we just have to get on with it when we can. Football is for fans. Without fans, we are nothing, so the game should always be for them.”