Uefa’s solution to a Champions League competition disrupted by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic is a ‘final eight’ knockout tournament played across 12 days in Lisbon.
Football’s reputation is at stake and, according to Europe’s governing body, the staging of future international matches if protocols are not followed.
In Lisbon, all eight teams and their officials, including Premier League side Manchester City, are required to stick to the rules from a 31-page document.
Some of them will make life very different for the elite of European football.
The beaches and sights of Lisbon will be out of bounds, with players only allowed to leave their hotels with prior agreement – and even then they cannot come into contact with anyone outside their group.
In the hotels, players should have private access routes and a private dining area, while food should only be served by the team’s own staff.
Need your pants washing? Clothes and equipment can only be handled by team staff.
Late line-up changes?
The life of a footballer these days involves plenty of tests for coronavirus and the Champions League bubble will be no different.
Tests were conducted before clubs left for Portugal – two people connected with Atletico Madrid have already returned positive results and not been allowed to travel.
Tests will also be carried out in Lisbon the day before each game. Uefa has promised the results will be delivered – at the latest – six hours before kick-off.
But one or two positive tests could lead to some torn-up team sheets and tactical masterplans.
It is worth noting Uefa’s rules stipulate that provided a team can field 13 ‘A list’ players, plus a goalkeeper, games have to go ahead.
If a team cannot do that, they would be allowed to bring in any new signings who had not been registered.
Uefa would look at the potential for rescheduling on a case-by-case basis. However, given the Champions League final will not be moved from August 23, the reality for any team not capable of fielding a side is that they would probably have to forfeit the fixture.
Mirror in front of the toilet
As if coronavirus tests weren’t enough, there are also drugs tests to think about.
Doping control officers would usually observe from close quarters when players produce a urine sample.
But, to enable the officer to watch from a socially distanced position, players will have a mirror set up opposite the toilet – which might be a little disconcerting.
Disinfected transport and VIP exit
Planes and buses must be thoroughly disinfected and, “to minimise contact with the general public”, players will be using VIP arrival areas at airports.
The rules for leaving the bus are less glamorous – you just need to remember to use the central door and not get off at the front.
Pennants yes, shirts no
Fans of pre-match gift exchanges will be relieved – pennants can still be swapped before kick-off. But anyone eyeing up Lionel Messi’s shirt will be disappointed, as players are not permitted to swap jerseys.
Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid’s triumph over Liverpool in March was a throwback to a more celebrated past under Diego Simeone but five months on and the Champions League offers them a very real opportunity in the present.
Knocking out the holders at Anfield may prove to be the first glimpse of a new era under Simeone, where the likes of Joao Felix, Marcos Llorente, Jose Gimenez and Jan Oblak push Atletico to challenge for major honours again.
Or it could be a last hurrah for the Simeone project, which some believe will never again scale the heights of their incredible La Liga title win in 2014 or their runs to the Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016.
Either way, few believed Llorente’s two goals in extra-time would be the start of something even more surprising, namely Simeone lifting the cup in May.
Certainly nobody anticipated football shutting down completely the following week, as nervousness turned to indignation about Atletico fans travelling to Anfield, before matches behind closed foors became matches postponed indefinitely.
And yet when football returned in June, Atletico were transformed. They went unbeaten in the 11 games after the resumption, to dispel concerns they could miss out on La Liga’s four.
They won seven matches and drew four, one of them against Barcelona at Camp Nou, which helped Real Madrid clinch the title. They scored 20 goals and conceded six. If the season had started when the league restarted, Atletico would have finished second.
“We did well and we know we’re on a really good streak but the Champions League is a different competition,” said Diego Costa last week.
Atletico face Leipzig in Lisbon today as one of the form teams still standing, in a tournament that has gifted them the significantly kinder half of the draw.
If they beat Leipzig, who laboured to a third-place finish in the Bundesliga, they will face either Atalanta, the tournament’s minnows or Paris Saint-Germain, who have played two games in almost half a year.
Meanwhile, in the other half, only one of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester City and Lyon can reach the final.
Without doubt, Atletico’s opponents and potential semi-final opponents will be just as eager to capitalise, especially PSG, whose longing for success in the Champions League has come to define them.
And it is unknown how Simeone’s squad will be affected by the club’s announcement on Sunday that Angel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko tested positive for coronavirus, with both players, who would likely have been on the bench, left at home.
A required second round of tests on Sunday meant preparations had to be tweaked, including delaying the squad’s flight to Lisbon.
But it is hard to shake the sense that as a team, Atletico are very well-placed, even if the club has always appeared more comfortable as under-dogs under Simeone than burdened by expectation.
Even the new format could suit them, in single matches where game management is likely to be key and technical superiority has less time to win out than over the traditional 180 minutes.
A riled Jurgen Klopp said after Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat at the Wanda Metropolitano in February that Atletico’s backs-to-the-wall approach would not be as effective without their own fans.
Yet they were able to frustrate Liverpool at Anfield too, before winning 3-2 in the second leg.
“It’s important to accept the new format because once you accept it, you can adapt,” said Atleti’s Saul Niguez.
Leipzig, meanwhile, were still in the title race in March and considered a threat even in the Champions League, on the back of destroying Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham in the last 16.
But they have been less effective since the restart and will be less potent without Timo Werner, whose move to Chelsea cruelly prevents him from finishing what he started.