Eye on Istanbul
First off, it feels a little redundant to preview a season which is clouded in uncertainty, and where it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to attend matches until 2021, but this is just the state of the world attempting to live with Covid-19.
The 2019/20 season ended with the final Europa League games being played behind closed doors, whilst the Premier League season has started under the same restrictions. Meanwhile, travel around Europe and the world has also been heavily impacted with many countries subject to quarantine. It meant that there was only a slim hope that we’d be able to attend any Champions League games before Christmas, but shortly after the group stage draw UEFA announced a maximum of 30% attendance at games and with no away fans permitted.
Of course we’re hopeful that going to the football will be a normal part of daily life again by early 2021, however the reality is that no one can really be sure. A final might be beyond this current United team too, and so a trip to Istanbul for the final in May really would represent something special.
The delayed start to the league season meant a knock-on to the usual European matchdays, with the late September matchday one pushed back and consecutive game weeks split by a two week break in November:
20th/21st October – matchday one
27th/28th October – matchday two
3rd/4th November – matchday three
24th/25th November – matchday four
1st/2nd December – matchday five
8th/9th December – matchday six
United were seeded in pot 2 meaning they were guaranteed to face one of the league winners in pot 1 as well as a mix of experienced teams in pots 3 & 4. Aside from the usual Russian & Ukranian teams, Ferencváros of Hungary were one of the few interesting low ranks to make the group stage draw, whilst Salzburg of Austria represented the other potential new country for me. Whilst neither of these came out of the hat, we were still paired with a few new opponents:
Paris-Saint Germain, France
One of Europe’s modern “big teams”, United only faced Paris-Saint Germain for the first time in 2019 with a very memorable second leg win at the Parc des Princes. An excellent trip to the capital even if we were outclassed in the next round by Barcelona. We’ve had a number of matches in France in recent years, including Saint-Etienne in 2017, and it always makes for a good trip via the Eurostar.
The superstars of PSG are funded by state run Qatar Sports Investments which has led to understandable derision throughout Europe. A once competitive Ligue 1 has now been won by PSG in 7 of the last 8 seasons. They also finally made the Champions League final in 2020 only to lose to worthy winners Bayern Munich. Matchday one coincides with a state of emergency in Paris and night-time lockdown restrictions much harsher than we’re currently experiencing in the north of England, certainly not the best place to visit right now in any circumstance.
RB Leipzig, Germany
The first new opponent, RB Leipzig (or RasenBallsport Leipzig) is a team clouded in controversy. Though Germany is the third most frequent home of United’s European opponents (last playing Wolfsburg in 2015), Leipzig have never featured given their relative newcomer status. Formed in 2009, the club effectively bought the league place of nearby SSV Markranstädt in a move not too dissimilar to that of Wimbledon & MK Dons in 2004. Club ownership is one of the biggest fan issues in German football with their 50+1 shareholder rules, which Leipzig have flaunted and in doing so infuriated fans of other clubs.
RB Leipzig quickly rose through the German league, gaining promotion to the Bundeliga in 2016 having started in the 5th tier in 2009, heavily backed by owners Red Bull and significantly higher spenders than all of their opponents. They first qualified for the Champions League in 2017/18 and reached the semi finals in 2019/20, losing 3-0 to PSG. A trip to Leipzig, 120 miles south of Berlin, would have made for a great December trip; given their recent performances they’ll be a Champions League mainstay for a while, so we could well face them again.
Istanbul Basaksehir, Turkey
Istanbul is a city United have regularly visited to face Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and most recently Fenerbahçe in 2016, whilst my last trip there was in 2012. It’s a city I’ve always wanted to return to and there was a glimmer of a chance when their name came out of the draw with Turkey having been a popular destination for holiday makers this summer given very few restrictions. Alas, minutes after the draw the UK government announced that Turkey was being added to their list of quarantined countries.
Another club with controversial ownership, Istanbul Basaksehir (who only formed in 1990) have alleged ties with the Turkish Conservative party AK Parti. Given the relatively short history and the “big three” competing teams in the city, the club has a small fan base and really aren’t popular, and that’s without all of the government propaganda and backing that led them to their first title in 2019/20. A return of fans’ favourite ex-player Rafael one of the few attractions of this tie.
A tough draw, dubbed ‘the group of death’ by some and ‘modern football full house’ by others. There’s a small hope that the matchday six trip to Germany in December might allow for an away allocation with the country fairly well ahead in terms of bringing fans back to stadiums, however UEFA’s initial statement makes it seem unlikely. It’s not going to be an easy group either, with Leipzig & Paris two of last season’s semi-finalists, but if we can pick up the end of season form we’ll have a chance to compete in this year’s competition.