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Bubble Boys! Inside Man Utd's bizarre preparations for Europa League semi-final with Sevilla

3:00 AM EDT 8/15/20
Bruno Fernandes Anthony Martial Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Man Utd 2019-20 GFX
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side are bidding to make their first final of the season in the most surreal of circumstances in Cologne, Germany

In normal circumstances, Cologne in western Germany would be full of Manchester United fans ducking in and out of the bars and restaurants in the shadows of the city’s gothic cathedral.

However, this is 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. Normal circumstances no longer exist.

Aside from a handful of United fans who flew out on Sunday to be in Cologne for the quarter-final clash against Copenhagen, and a giant replica trophy which could be found on the banks of the Rhine, you wouldn’t know there’s a football festival taking place here.

Walking around the heavily locked-down RheinEnergieStadion on Monday, as United faced Copenhagen in the quarter-finals, locals were going about their daily tasks, exercising in the park and training on an athletics track.

There were no scarf sellers, no merchandise stands and only a few supporters.

The conclusion of the 2019-20 Europa League is effectively being played out inside a bubble because, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said, these are "unprecedented" times.

It's not just a strange experience for fans forced to stay away, either; this is all very odd for the players too.

With Cologne only an hour away from Manchester by plane, United had initially hoped to be able to fly in and out of the city for their games, in the event that they made it all the way to the final.

However, the Covid-19 rules and restrictions mean that participants have to remain in Germany until they're either knocked out, or the tournament is over.

Should United reach the final on Friday, they would end up having spent 13 days in Cologne. Of course, players are used to staying in hotels, particularly those who play international football.

However, this is all very different. Under UEFA guidelines, United's players are only allowed out of their four-star hotel once a day.

It is a bizarre way for the squad to be preparing for their third semi-final of the season but Solskjaer said his troops have been coping well.

"They like each other’s company; they have fun in-between the sessions,” the United manager told MUTV.

“We just have to make the most out of a difficult situation, with the weather as well, because it’s so warm.”

Rules imposed by UEFA, set out in a 31-page document, are strict and non-negotiable.

The club have not got exclusive access of their Cologne hotel base but instead have commandeered two entire floors, where they also have their team meals.

The number of hotel staff on United's floors has been kept to the bare minimum and they are not allowed to serve food to any members of the ‘bubble’ and must leave cleaning up until everybody has left.

Laundry arrangements have also had to be made, ensuring anything that is washed is only handled by team staff and nobody at the hotel.

While it is making for a peculiar end to the tournament, there’s a willingness among everyone involved to do whatever is necessary to get the remaining games played as safely as possible.

In order to keep boredom at bay, meanwhile, United have created a 'Games Room' for the players which features an arcade basketball game, PlayStations and ping-pong tables.

They’ve also been able to use an outdoor bar area on the ground floor of the hotel as an alternative to sitting in their rooms.

Harry Maguire, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Lee Grant also took the chance to pay a visit to the ice cream parlour owned by German World Cup winner Lukas Podolski.

Walks outside the hotel are restricted to one a day and the 'bubble' group, which is smaller than the usual number of staff that would be taken on an away trip, ensure that they stick to social distancing and wear masks.

Having been denied the chance to return to Manchester ahead of Sunday's semi-final showdown with Sevilla, the squad has been training at Sportpark Hohenberg, FC Viktoria Koln’s home.

Although it is not comparable to the world-class facilities at Carrington, it is a more than adequate temporary home for Solskjaer’s men, who are having to alternate training times because of the oppressive summer heat.

Usually on away trips such as these, the players’ schedules would be packed with a mixture of sponsor activities and team-building exercises. Such things are simply no longer possible.

Still, despite the strange environment, spirits in the squad are high.

The preparation has hardly been ideal but United's 'bubble boys' would be happy to spend another week closed off in Cologne as it would mean appearing in their first final of the season.