Reds to face Atletico at neutral venue

Liverpool will play next week’s away Champions League match against Atletico Madrid at a neutral venue, after the Spanish club were hit with a stadium ban by UEFA.

Atletico have been fined €150,000 for racist abuse of Marseille players earlier this month and handed a three-match stadium ban after crowd trouble and lack of organisation at the same match.

It is UEFA’s toughest-ever action for racist behaviour, and Atletico coach Javier Aguirre has also been banned for his club’s home and away fixtures against Liverpool for insulting Marseille player Mathieu Valbuena.

UEFA confirmed the sanctions today and said the next two Champions League home games cannot be played within 300km of Madrid. The third match ban will be invoked only if there is a repeat of crowd trouble or racist chanting within the next five years.

UEFA communications director William Gaillard explained the reasons for the European governing body’s stringent action, which follows yesterday’s announcement that England will refuse to play in Madrid when they take on Spain in a friendly in February because of past racist incidents.

He said: “This shows our renewed determination to show zero tolerance towards racism. We had a great Euro (2008) with outstanding fan behaviour and we want our club games to be played in the same spirit.”

Gaillard, special adviser to UEFA president Michel Platini, said he understood why England players may be reluctant to return to Madrid where they were targeted four years ago.

He added: “I understand the players’ fears. That is exactly why we are acting with renewed strength – to make sure that in the future England players will not be threatened by this kind of behaviour.

“We think sanctions like the ones we have taken are conducive to making it possible for clubs and national teams to play in Madrid without this kind of threat of racist behaviour.”

Atletico were found guilty of a lack of organisation that led to a number of serious problems. Visiting fans were “victimised” by police, according to UEFA, and no police escort was provided for the team coach to and from the stadium – it was attacked by ’ultras’ from the Spanish club.

Furthermore, black journalists in the press area were racially insulted by Atletico fans – and no provision was made for disabled supporters who had bought tickets.

Monkey chants were then aimed at Marseille’s black players, and Atletico coach Aguirre repeatedly swore at Valbuena – calling him ’a son of a whore’ and other insults, and then held on to the ball to waste time at a throw-in.

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