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June 23, 2021
Champions League fixtures moved to Budapest amid travel restrictions

Champions League fixtures moved to Budapest amid travel restrictions

The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on international travel and while elite athletes had previously been exempt from restrictions in certain countries, that is no longer the case.

The venue changes largely concern teams from the United Kingdom and Germany, with both nations recently introducing regulations that prohibit international travel from countries deemed to be high risk.

Germany has included Britain on its high risk list due to the new UK variant and international travel into the country is banned until February 17.

This means the first leg of Liverpool’s round of 16 Champions League tie against RB Leipzig on February 16, which was set to be played in Germany, has now been moved to the Puskas Arena in Budapest, as has the second leg of Manchester City’s clash against Borussia Monchengladbach on February 24.

The second leg of Arsenal’s Europa League tie against Portuguese side Benfica will now be played in Athens instead of London.

Portugal is one of 33 countries on the UK government’s “red list,” which means people traveling to the UK from those countries must self-isolate for 10 days upon arrival. No exemptions have been made for elite athletes.

The first leg of the tie has already been moved from Lisbon to Rome as a result as result of Portugal’s travel restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19 variants.

The first leg of all Champions League round of 16 matches will be played this week and the return leg played the week of March 9.

The Europe League round of 32 matches begin this week with the second leg played the week of February 25.

Liverpool in crisis?

While the rearranging of fixtures has given clubs a logistical headache, some have concerns with issues on the pitch.

Reigning Premier League champion Liverpool goes into Tuesday’s tie against Leipzig with more problems than most, coming off the back of three consecutive defeats that have seen its domestic title defense implode.

On Monday, captain Jordan Henderson laughed off rumors that there had been a bust up in the changing room following Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to Leicester and manager Jurgen Klopp swatted away any suggestion that he was in danger of losing his job.

Leipzig will be a stern test for a Liverpool side that has looked stagnant in attack and porous defensively. The German side, managed by one of Europe’s most highly regarded coaches in Julian Nagelsmann, plays a fast-paced and high-pressing brand of football that is good enough to overcome Europe’s biggest clubs.

With Liverpool stumbling, this fixture offers Nagelsmann an excellent chance to further enhance his burgeoning reputation.

Arguably the best tie of the last 16 pits Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain, both of which have endured their fair share of ups and downs this season.

However, fans will be denied to opportunity to see PSG star Neymar return to Barcelona, the club he left acrimoniously in 2017 for a record $263 million transfer fee. The Brazilian forward is expected to be sidelined for at least a month with a groin injury suffered in Wednesday’s French Cup clash against Caen.

Injuries have plagued Neymar’s time in Paris and have forced him to miss a quarter of PSG’s Champions League matches since he joined the club. The latest injury robs fans of the most intriguing subplot in this round of fixtures.

Neymar writhes in pain after suffering an injury during a French Cup match against Cean last week.

Barcelona return to winning ways

Opponents Barcelona appear to have turned a corner in recent weeks, winning its last seven La Liga matches to climb to third in the table and relieve some of the pressure on head coach Ronald Koeman.

The Dutchman joined Barcelona at the start of the season, but a stuttering start put his position under intense scrutiny just weeks into the job. It certainly didn’t help that Lionel Messi, the greatest player in Barcelona’s star-studded history, make public his desire to leave the club before the season had even started.

Messi has not won the Champions League since 2015 — when Neymar was playing alongside him — and many believe Barcelona has wasted six of the Argentine’s peak years.

There has been a tetchy back and forth between PSG and Barcelona in the lead-up to the fixture, with rumors swirling that Messi could join fellow Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, PSG’s newly appointed head coach, in Paris at the end of the season.

These two sides served up one of the greatest Champions League ties in history back in 2017, when PSG crumbled and threw away a 4-0 first-leg advantage by losing to Barcelona 6-1 in the second leg. If the 2021 rematch offers even a fraction of the drama, it could be the game of the season so far.