Pandemic warps soccer schedules as European play resumes

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Real Madrid's Isco, right, duels for the ball with Manchester City's Kyle Walker during the Champions League, round of 16, first leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

DUSSELDORF, Germany — When the Champions League and Europa League return next week amid the coronavirus pandemic, the teams remaining in the competitions will be resuming following a vastly different set of preparations.

For Italian teams, it’s the last stretch in a packed schedule that included two games a week since June. The French league stopped in March, leaving Paris Saint-Germain to schedule friendlies before two domestic cup finals.

When PSG faces Atalanta and Juventus plays Lyon in the Champions League, those contrasts will be tested.

“It’s clear that the conditions aren’t normal,” Simon Rolfes, the sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

“I think we have to accept that there are certain points where everything isn’t optimal or exactly the same, and that’s just the case because of the pandemic. Obviously, it isn’t the equality in competition that you’d normally wish for, but it’s not the time to achieve that. Otherwise, it can’t happen at all.”

Leverkusen tried to balance rest and training ahead of its Europa League game against Rangers on Aug. 6, five months after the German team won the first leg 3-1.

Leverkusen gave players a 17-day break to clear their heads following its German Cup final loss to Bayern Munich on July 4 before going back to training.

“Since we’ve only got a short break, the players don’t lose much,” Rolfes said. “It’s not the sort of preparation you have after five, six, seven weeks on vacation.”

The European tournaments will be played using new formats in Portugal and Germany five months after the coronavirus shut down the European season.

The late finishes will give players little chance to catch their breath as the last games of the 2019-20 season flow quickly into the opening games of 2020-21.

FATIGUE SETS IN

Tiredness means more muscle injuries and poorly timed tackles. World players’ union FIFPro is monitoring the situation with concern.

“The number of recovery days between matches is not sufficient much of the time,” FIFPro medical director Vincent Gouttebarge told the AP. “It’s the cumulative exposure to this load. Week after week with the club obviously, with the national team, travelling perhaps from one country to another.”

Basel has the toughest schedule of all. The Swiss league ends Monday, later than any other country in Europe. That leaves a three-day turnaround to play Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League, then potentially more knockout matches.

Basel players also face a Swiss Cup semifinal match in August, national team games in early September, a new league season from Sept. 11, and qualifying for the 2020-21 Europa League starting Sept. 17.

UNEVEN LEAGUES

Teams who aren’t in European competitions could have an edge in domestic leagues.

While the likes of Bayern Munich, Leipzig and Leverkusen train, other German clubs can rest. Borussia Dortmund and Werder Bremen only resume training Monday.

“It’s a challenge for the teams who are playing in the European cups, no question,” Rolfes said. ”It will be really important to manage it intelligently and very well. Ahead of the Bundesliga season, it’s an advantage for the teams who have normal preparation and a normal vacation.”

The plan at Leverkusen is to give players more rest once the team’s Europa League campaign is over before the new German season begins with cup games in mid-September.

Fatigue could follow players and clubs all the way through the 2020-21 season, which is more congested than usual. Germany has more midweek games and a reduced winter break to make way for the postponed European Championship in June-July 2021.

Besides Dortmund, English clubs like Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal are already eliminated from European competition and can get extra rest.

SIGNINGS SIDELINED

Champions League and Europa League squads will look different to the teams which played in March. Key players have left and new signings can’t be added to the roster.

That means no Leroy Sane for Bayern in the Champions League after he signed from Manchester City. Timo Werner scored one goal and set up another when Leipzig beat Tottenham 4-0 on aggregate in the spring. Now he’s a Chelsea player, leaving Leipzig with a hole in attack.

Other signings could be delayed. It is “set in stone” that Kai Havertz will play the Europa League campaign for Leverkusen before any transfer, the German club’s managing director for sports Rudi Voller told Kicker magazine on Wednesday.

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