Opinion

Single legs in Europe should be here to stay

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The 2002 FIFA World Cup was full of surprises with South Korea, United States, Turkey and Senegal all making the last eight.

OK, the final may have featured the most traditional of heavyweights, Brazil and Germany, but it was refreshing to see some new names at the pointy end of the tournament.

It’s the same with the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League. Who would have thought that RB Leipzig and Lyon would be in the semi-finals?

Lyon was my first European football trip back in the nineties and while it was an unsuccessful one in football terms, the club, fans and city helped to make it extremely memorable.

And while I’ve never seen Leipzig play, one of my best football memories came from the east German city in 2006, seeing South Korean fans singing and dancing downtown after securing a late draw against a strong French team that had the Taeguk Warriors on the brink of the second round.

A final between Lyon and Leipzig would be quite something, though like in 2002, the old powerhouse, this time Bayern Munich, will probably end up lifting the trophy for a sixth time.

But just being 90 minutes from the final is something special and the fact that it is 90 minutes is a reason for optimism for these two interlopers.

The one-legged quarter-finals may have been a necessary measure as a reaction to the effects of coronavirus but they have helped to throw up some surprises in a tournament that was in need of a little unpredictability.

In the past 20 years, there have been nine separate winners of the trophy, not great for a competition that is supposed to be a showcase for the champions over 50 nations.

Only one of those - FC Porto in 2004 - could be considered not part of the continent’s elite.

It is a far cry from the seventies and eighties when you could have teams like Nottingham Forest, Hamburg, Steaua Bucharest and PSV Eindhoven being crowned as the best.

The growth in revenues in European football has resulted in the domination of super-rich super clubs who progress to the knockout stages year in, year out.

With their star-studded squads, they have the ability to handle the twin demands of domestic and continental competitions to an extent that those on the next rung down the ladder simply can’t.

It also means that over two legs, the big boys usually have enough to overcome their challengers.

Any team can shock another over 90 minutes but add a return match and it becomes that bit more difficult.

The single matches then have been a refreshing change. We’ll never know if Lyon would have beaten Manchester City over two legs but the whole dynamic would have been different and City would surely have improved in a second leg.

Lyon will not be expected to progress past Bayern Munich in the semi-final over one leg but would have even less of a chance over two.

A sudden death game can turn on one decision, one moment of brilliance or stupidity. 

It is worth thinking about whether this new normal should become simply normal. Two legs can be exciting, we saw that last year, but they are still featuring the same teams every year.

There are some who don’t like the idea of outsiders winning the big prizes.

It was the same back in 2002 when the shocks were initially welcomed but then the feeling changed when it looked like the likes of Korea and Turkey may reach the final instead of the big boys.

But new blood is important. The idea of Bayern winning again is not exactly an exciting one for anyone outside Bavaria. But Lyon? That’s different.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the AFC Champions League which is also going with the single-game format this year.

This tournament is less predictable than its older brother but also less popular.

Ninety minutes of knockout action gives it a push in the right direction.

Given the current situation, few would argue that one leg fixtures have been a success in Europe. It is worth considering whether the change should be made permanent.