Arsenal is in talks about playing the away leg of their Europa League last 32 tie against Benfica at a neutral venue with travel to Portugal banned over Brazilian Covid-19 variant fears.
The club are currently set to travel to Lisbon on February 18 before the return leg at the Emirates Stadium a week later.
But the UK Government’s fears over a new Covid-19 variant from Brazil crossing between borders means the Gunners will be refused travel to Portugal, and they are therefore discussing an alternative.
The north London side are prepared to play the first leg at a neutral stadium, but their Portuguese counterparts are determined to play the match at their Estadio da Luz home.
The UK Government introduced a new travel ban on January 15 on travellers from South America, Portugal and Cape Verde coming into the country amid fears over the new coronavirus variant first identified in Brazil.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Portugal had been included ‘given its strong travel links with Brazil’.
Much like the variants that had been discovered in the UK and in South Africa, the Brazil variant is thought to be more contagious.
A special exemption in Covid rules governing elite sport will not apply in Arsenal’s case and has led to discussions about a neutral venue taking place.
That said, there is confusion surrounding plans for the UK Government to bring in quarantine hotels in the coming days, which could affect all English teams who play abroad in the Champions League and Europa League.
As it stands, elite sports teams are allowed to skip quarantine periods due to their regular testing and secure bubbles, but it is unclear as of yet whether any new rules would also apply to them.
While the Premier League has called for their players to be exempt from 10-day stays in ‘quarantine hotels’ on arrival in the UK, there have been widespread calls for all arrivals, including elite sportspeople, to have to partake.
Meanwhile, according to Johns Hopkins University, Portugal reported on Thursday the world’s highest per capita seven-day average for new cases.
Record death tolls from the pandemic were set each day last week in Portugal, with the level rising steadily from 152 on January 17 to 275 on Sunday, while on Saturday 15,000 new cases were registered in just 24 hours.
Infections in the country rose after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted during the Christmas holidays, a move which Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday was in hindsight a mistake.
Arsenal claimed maximum points from Group B in the Europa League this season, scoring 20 goals altogether in the six group-game fixtures against Dundalk, Molde and Rapid Vienna – the most ever by an English team in a UEFA Europa League group.
Benfica came through Group D without losing after recording three wins and as many draws, but were forced to settle for the runners-up spot behind Steven Gerrard’s Rangers.
The two sides have both never lifted the trophy despite featuring in five UEFA Cup and Europa League finals between them.
Benfica reached the final most recently in 2014 before losing to six-time champions Sevilla on penalties, while Arsenal were beaten 4-1 by Chelsea in the 2019 Europa League final in Baku.
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