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Home discomforts: Will coronavirus stadium closures hurt Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar’s Champions League chances?

Home discomforts: Will coronavirus stadium closures hurt Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar’s Champions League chances?
As the world grapples with the spread of the coronavirus the question has emerged as to whether its effects will harm the Champions League chances of the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across Europe, with major sporting events finding themselves far from immune.

The latest announcement came on Tuesday that Barcelona’s Champions League last 16 second leg against Napoli on March 18 will be played behind closed doors.

“It is a decision that has been taken strictly for health reasons,” the Catalan authorities said in announcing the step. 

That showdown joins three other Champions League last-16 second-leg matches which will be played without fans, the others being Valencia versus Atalanta (on Tuesday), Paris Saint-Germain versus Borussia Dortmund (Wednesday), and Juventus versus Lyon (March 17).

With the exception of Valencia versus Atalanta – where the visitors hold a 4-1 lead from the first leg – each of those last 16 ties is finely poised.

Barca and Napoli are locked at 1-1, Dortmund take a 2-1 lead to Paris, while Lyon aim to defend a 1-0 lead against Juve in Turin.

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All of the first leg ties were played in front of full crowds, but the return legs will see Barcelona, PSG, Valencia and Juventus deprived of home support in the stands.

PSG will not have the ferocity of their ultras at the Parc des Princes, Barcelona will not hear the roar of 90,000-odd Catalans at the Nou Camp, and Juve will be without 40,000 Italians backing them at Allianz Stadium.

Typically, clubs face stadium closures – either full or partial – for acts of fan disorder or incidents such as racism, but in this case it is due to the threat from a virus that has infected more than 100,000 people worldwide and claimed upwards of 3,000 lives.

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So just what will the impact of playing without a home crowd be for the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar? 

It’s a long-held belief that home advantage makes a big difference in football: the reduced travel burden, the familiarity of the surroundings, the crowd being with you rather than against you, the perception that fervent home support can perhaps sway match officials in the home team's favor. 

It is hard, of course, to quantify certain intangible aspects of those factors.

However, a comprehensive Sky Sports study back in 2017, which analyzed every result from all four professional English leagues dating back to 1888, showed a clear advantage to playing games at home – albeit one that had declined to around 16 percent for Premier League teams for the season in question.

That may not be as pronounced as many would believe, and a look at last season’s Champions League knockout stages shows an even tighter advantage to playing at home.

In the 28 games from the last 16 to the semi-final stages, there were 13 victories for the home team, 12 away wins and three draws. For that season at least, home advantage counted for much less in the knockout rounds.

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But while statistically speaking home advantage may seem overrated, some teams undoubtedly benefit from playing in front of packed home crowds. 

European nights at Anfield have assumed mystical status for Liverpool – something which they will seek to draw on when they attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night.

Deprive Mo Salah and Co of the thousands roaring them on from the Kop, and you would fancy their chances far less of breaking down a stubborn Atletico team. 

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One also suspects that the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar would much rather have the full benefit of home comforts, crowds included, rather than playing in empty stands.

Ronaldo and Juventus at least already know what a big home game behind closed doors feels like, having beaten Inter Milan 2-0 in front of empty stands in their crunch Serie A clash on Sunday.

That occasion bore witness to the eerie scene of Ronaldo high-fiving non-existent fans on his way into the stadium.  

Juventus will need to repeat that trick against Lyon to avoid an early Champions League exit, while Messi will have to make do without the Nou Camp masses cheering his name to try and edge past Napoli. 

All of this may seem a trivial concern in the grand scheme of things, as governments around the world scramble to save as many lives as possible.

But what it does illustrate is the uncharted territory that the coronavirus is leading sport into, and what the consequences of that could be on some of its biggest performers.

Should the much-fancied Barcelona, Juventus and PSG lose their respective ties, will they point the finger of blame at the disadvantage of playing in empty stadiums? Would they be within their rights to demand that the games be postponed until stadiums can be full again?  

Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar will be taking something of a step into the footballing unknown this week – and we await to see how it all plays out.

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