Manchester United, Inter Milan and Sevilla headline a quintet of former champions travelling to Germany for a remodelled eight-team knockout tournament that will crown the winner of a Europa League campaign heavily disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
All games will be played behind closed doors as one-off ties across four venues – Cologne, Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Gelsenkirchen – following a five-month interruption.
While a Champions League berth still awaits the victors of the final in Cologne on Aug 21, much has changed since the Covid-19 outbreak that brought European football to a standstill in March.
“There are rules and regulations in the ‘bubble’ that’s going to travel. We’ve got to stick together, stay together in and around the hotel and the training ground,” United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said of the strict health protocols clubs must respect.
Players and staff will undergo virus testing before departing for Germany and again on the eve of a match, a process repeated for each subsequent game till the final.
Uefa has also advised teams to travel on chartered flights and minimise contact with the public, strongly recommending the use of exclusive hotels – to which players will largely be confined – in order to avoid potential cross-contamination.
Substitutes and coaching staff must maintain social distancing when seated, with players instructed to limit contact as much as possible when warming up, while match balls will be disinfected before kick-off and at half-time.
United, the 2017 winners, face FC Copenhagen in today’s quarter-final in Cologne while Serie A runners-up Inter take on Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen in a clash of former Uefa Cup champions in the Dusseldorf Arena.
England forward Jesse Lingard, who played in the 2-0 win over Ajax in the final three years ago, is confident the Red Devils can capture the title for a second time.
“We can’t wait to get there and play this game now. Hundred per cent I want to win it again,” he told MUTV ahead of the clash with their Danish opponents. “Lifting a trophy is a special feeling you can’t really explain and winning it before, you take that confidence forward.
“We have got a mixture of youth and experience in the squad and for the young lads to win their first trophy, it will be perfect for them.”
Should United advance to the last four, they will face either Sevilla – who have won the Europa League and its precursor, the Uefa Cup, a record five times – or fellow English Premier League rivals Wolves on Sunday.
This year’s Europa League final was initially due to be played in the Polish city of Gdansk in May before the health crisis forced a change of plans.