UEFA Champions League last 16 – in a COVID-shaken season

16.02.2021

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have shaken up the world of football and have also left a great deal of lingering uncertainty around the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League (‘UCL’) campaign. The most anticipated European club competition continues tonight with the commencement of the knockout stages.

The round of 16 is again almost a closed shop for the big five football leagues: the Portuguese champions FC Porto, the only exceptions, are back in the last stages of the tournament after the shock of last season, when they were not even able to make it to the group stages.

In the past decade, the knock-out phase of the UCL has increasingly become an exclusive big five league show: the non-big five leagues contributing to only one-fifth of all clubs participating in the latter stages of the competition during this time period.

An analysis of the past ten UCL competitions shows that the clubs who progressed to the last-16 stage typically had higher overall squad values than those who could not qualify for the knockout stage. In the 2018-19 season, Ajax were a rare exception, when they progressed despite having only the 3rd most valuable squad in their group, while there were no such examples in the 2019/20 season. This year, however, there are four clubs progressing to the knockout stage from their group with only the 3rd highest overall squad value – Borussia Mönchengladbach (surpassing the more valuable side of Inter Milan in their respective group), FC Porto (finishing ahead of Marseille), Atalanta (leapfrogging FC Ajax) and RB Leipzig (surpassing Manchester United).

We can also observe big differences in squad values among this seasons qualifying 16 teams – there are only two clubs, namely Manchester City and Liverpool, whose squad value is over EUR 1 billion, while Porto have the squad with the lowest total value of EUR 214m. 

Despite all these familiar trends, the current COVID crisis continues to critically impact the tournament. Club income generated through UCL participation has been predictable in the past, but it cannot be taken for granted this season due the overall uncertainty caused by the pandemic. In contrast to the usual full-house attendance and the significant matchday income for clubs, it is unpredictable if and how much clubs can earn from ticket sales this season. In addition, any major disruption in the tournament schedule may impact commercial and broadcasting revenues too. If ties were forced to be canceled, or two-leg fixtures of the knockout stages to be reduced to single-match ties (as witnessed in the previous campaign), sponsors may want to be reimbursed for their losses due the decreased exposure and activation. 

In October 2020, UEFA announced that from the group stage onwards, matches can be played with 30% capacity if local authorities allow. However, as a precautionary measure, most games are currently being played behind closed doors, while the first legs of the knockout stage already include matches that are forced to be played on neutral venues: the ties between RB Leipzig vs Liverpool and Mönchengladbach vs Manchester City will take place at the Puskás Aréna in Budapest: both German clubs had to relocate their home ties due to the travel restrictions in place in Germany as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, Atlético Madrid's game with Chelsea next week will be moved to Bucharest, Romania. 

Almost exactly a year ago, the first leg of the Atalanta vs Valencia tie played in Milan’s San Siro was later blamed by authorities for the sharp increase in coronavirus cases in Atalanta's home city Bergamo. Similarly, the second leg of the Atlético Madrid vs Liverpool tie last March was held responsible for contributing to the high concentration of COVID-related cases in North West England.

All in all, as many football clubs are currently in dire straits, amid the decline and uncertainty of all revenue streams caused by the pandemic, it would be pivotal for participating clubs to be able to complete the current UCL season, ideally according to schedule and to maximise revenues on offer.