Messi, Ronaldo gone from Champions League but the absence of fans hurts most

PARIS: The elimination of both Barcelona and Juventus from the Champions League means neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo will feature in the quarterfinals of Europe's elite club competition, which this week marked a year since matches were last played in full stadiums.

The end of the Messi-Ronaldo era has been approaching for some time and both going out of the Champions League, the tournament that together they dominated for so long, in the last 16 is another step closer to that point.

At least one of them had made it to the quarterfinals in each of the previous 15 campaigns, although Ronaldo had gone out while Messi was injured in the latter stages in the first year of that run, when Barcelona won the trophy in 2005/06.

Before that, in 2004/05, Ronaldo had just turned 20 as his Manchester United side lost to AC Milan in the last 16. Messi was still 17 and just breaking through at Barcelona as they lost to Chelsea at the same juncture.

Between them they have won the Champions League nine times over the period.

They are by some distance the all-time top scorers in the competition, with Ronaldo on 134 goals followed by Messi on 120. The next highest scorer is Robert Lewandowski with 72.

Over 12 straight seasons from 2008 to 2019 one of them was the top scorer in the competition every year. Now the latter stages will go ahead without them.

Ronaldo, who turned 36 last month, cut a frustrated figure for much of Juve's game against Porto on Tuesday as the Italians went out on away goals.

He didn't score in either leg against Porto. Two of his four goals in the group stage were penalties.

"With him we usually start with a goal's advantage," said Juventus coach Andrea Pirlo. "But it can also happen to the greatest champions not to score."

Messi, 34 in June, scored both Barcelona's goals in their 5-2 aggregate defeat by Paris Saint-Germain, including a stunning long-range hit in the second leg, but a later penalty miss killed off any hopes his team had of a remarkable comeback.

It is now over to the new superstars, most notably Kylian Mbappe and Erling Braut Haaland, as the Champions League reaches its business end.

However what the competition is really crying out for, even more than Messi and Ronaldo, is fans in the stands.

The last time a knockout tie was played before a crowd was exactly a year ago, on March 11 last year, when Liverpool faced Atletico Madrid in front of more than 52,000 people packed into Anfield.

It was the same day that the World Health Organization first described the Covid-19 outbreak as a pandemic.

Other European matches that midweek had already been played behind closed doors.

On Thursday, March 12, two Europa League last 16 first-leg games went ahead in front of crowds, with close to 50,000 inside Ibrox to see Rangers take on Bayer Leverkusen.

By that weekend football had ground to a halt almost everywhere as lockdowns took hold. The sport began to return in Europe a couple of months later but, one year on, clubs are straining under the weight of the economic hit of playing games behind closed doors.

The sense of occasion has essentially gone too, even if some supporters managed to break France's strict night-time curfew to let off fireworks right outside the ground during PSG's game against Barcelona on Wednesday.

Instead of a packed Anfield, Liverpool's home game against RB Leipzig on Wednesday was relocated to an empty stadium in Budapest, where Manchester City will face Borussia Moenchengladbach next week.

The football remains of a high quality, but it is not the same.

"I said it 5,000 times, football would not be the game we love," without fans, said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp this week.

"Nobody would be interested, nobody would want to watch it in a stadium. I can't wait for the day when people are allowed again to go to the stadium." – AFP