Europa League not spared from virus chaos as Man Utd go behind closed doors
Manchester United’s Europa League last 16, first leg away to LASK Linz in Austria is one of five matches in the competition set to be played behind closed doors on Thursday as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc with football on the continent.
United confirmed on Tuesday that the decision had been made “following guidance from the Austrian government”, with the Alpine country having recorded 182 cases of COVID-19 by Tuesday.
The news will be a disappointment to supporters of the Austrian club hoping to see their team spring a surprise against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s in-form side.
United’s 2-0 derby win over Manchester City on Sunday saw them extend their current unbeaten run to 10 games, with eight clean sheets in that time. They are now hoping to seize the initiative in this tie before a weekend trip to Tottenham Hotspur.
Coached by the French former Bayern Munich and Crystal Palace defender Valerien Ismael, LASK is six points ahead of Salzburg at the top of the Austrian Bundesliga as they chase a first league title since 1965.
They lost to Club Brugge in Champions League qualifying this season. The Belgians then lost to Solskjaer’s side in the last round of the Europa League.
Olympiakos owner has virus
UEFA confirmed on Monday that Wolverhampton Wanderers’ first leg against Olympiakos in Greece would also be played behind closed doors.
That preceded the announcement that Olympiakos owner Vangelis Marinakis — also the owner of English club Nottingham Forest — had tested positive for coronavirus. He said he was taking “all necessary measures” and “feeling well”.
“We share the disappointment of all of our supporters who will be affected by this decision,” Wolves said.
Olympiakos top the Greek league and are hoping to claim a second Premier League scalp after eliminating Arsenal in the previous round. They also held Tottenham at home in the Champions League group stage this season.
With Italy, the worst-hit European country by the ongoing crisis, Inter Milan’s home game against Getafe will be played out in an empty stadium, while no fans will be allowed into Sevilla’s match against Roma in Spain.
In addition, German club Wolfsburg has confirmed their clash with Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk will be behind closed doors.
However, fellow Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt are set to play FC Basel in front of a crowd while uncertainty surrounds the return leg in Switzerland next week. Basel has said the game will not go ahead in the country, where all football in the top two domestic leagues has already been postponed for the rest of the month.
Fans are also expected to fill Ibrox, where Rangers entertain Bayer Leverkusen hoping to pull off a shock result against opponents on a nine-game unbeaten run and sitting fourth in the Bundesliga.
Steven Gerrard has come under pressure with his team falling 13 points behind leaders Celtic in the Scottish Premiership and also being knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Hearts.
However, their European form has provided a tonic and now they are preparing for their 17th match in the competition this season.
Gerrard, who called it “one of the toughest ties we could have got”, is without veteran striker Jermain Defoe due to a calf injury.
Leverkusen announced on Tuesday that the return leg next week “was set to be played behind closed doors” after health officials in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia called for events bringing together more than 1,000 people to be called off.
Europa League last 16, first-leg fixtures on Thursday
1755 GMT kick-offs:
LASK (AUT) v Manchester United (ENG), Eintracht Frankfurt (GER) v Basel (SUI), Sevilla (ESP) v Roma (ITA), Istanbul Basaksehir (TUR) v FC Copenhagen (DEN)
2000 GMT kick-offs
Inter Milan (ITA) v Getafe (ESP), Wolfsburg (GER) v Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR), Rangers (SCO) v Bayer Leverkusen (GER), Olympiakos (GRE) v Wolverhampton Wanderers (ENG)