Manchester United were at the centre of a huge security operation on Thursday night as the Belgian police and authorities, already on a heightened state of alert following last year’s terrorists attacks in Brussels, took no chances before their game against Anderlecht in the wake of the Borussia Dortmund bus bombing.
Dortmund were forced to delay their Champions League quarter-final, first leg against Monaco by 24 hours after three explosive devices tore into their team bus on Tuesday night. Marc Bartra, the Dortmund defender, had to undergo surgery on his arm to repair a fracture and remove shrapnel after he was injured by shards of glass in the shocking terrorist attack.
Security levels in Brussels have been raised since March 22 last year when coordinated bombings on the city killed 32 people and injured over 300 others.
But the Dortmund incident led to a range of additional security measures in the lead up to and aftermath of the first leg of United’s Europa League quarter-final, with a ring of steel around the Constant Vanden Stock stadium.
Just under four hours before kick-off, two camouflaged army personnel carriers pulled up transporting troops to the ground with armed checkpoints set up at each end of the main street bordering the stadium. Although this has been common practice since the Brussels attacks, there were more police, army and security than normal for Anderlecht’s most high profile match of the season.
The heavy police presence could be traced all the way back to the city, with dozens of armed officers in riot gears, some with sniffer dogs, patrolling entrances to tram stations and guards littered on the train platforms.
At one end of the street where United fans entered the stadium, steel gates manned by armed police blocked the way with more officers inside the perimeter. Police were under instructions from the mayor to address any supporters trying to enter the stadium without tickets. All bags were banned inside the ground unless they had special blue tags. Media and photographers were subjected to body searches and their laptops and equipment checked.
Despite the enforced measures, there was still a carnival atmosphere around the ground, with fans drinking in the early evening sunshine at bars along Avenue Theo Verbeecklaan.
United had left their base, the Hotel on Boulevard de Waterloo, three hours before kick-off with armed police waiting for them as the boarded the team bus.
Despite the tight security measures, some fans were able to sneak flares into the stadium and set them off, which led a warning over the PA.
Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who was Dortmund’s coach for seven years until 2015, said he could see “the shock in the eyes” of his former players following the terrorist attack.
Thomas Tuchel, Klopp’s successor as Dortmund coach, had claimed the club were “completely ignored” by Uefa over the rescheduling of their game against Monaco and he received the backing of fellow managers as well as the world players’ union.
In a statement, FIFPro said: “Players are people first and their emotional state must be taken into account. This comes before any other consideration.
“We believe the incident was serious enough to warrant a longer delay than 24 hours, irrespective of the challenges it would have posed for traveling fans and to adjust the match calendar.”
Klopp said: “Probably everyone can imagine it was a difficult moment for me. In the interviews after the game I could see the faces of my former players and I saw shock in their eyes and that was really difficult to play the game, so I forgot the match immediately.
“I can 100 per cent understand how it was difficult to find another date in this really tight schedule because when would you want to play the game? But of course I think everyone would understand if they didn't play it and thought 'we'll find a solution next week' or whatever.”
Everton manager Ronald Koeman joined Klopp in condemning the attack and believes the timing of the rescheduling of the tie definitely affected its outcome.
“It’s really strange for them because if you’re involved it’s difficult to prepare for the game as you’d like, and maybe that was one of the reasons they lost,” he said.
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, who was manager of Barcelona when Bartra came through the ranks at the Nou Camp, called on the world's super powers to do all they can to stop attacks.
“It's a bit scary how the world is. It's going a bit crazy, what’s happening in Syria,” said Guardiola.
“Hopefully the president of the United States, the presidents of Russia and China, can intervene and find a solution, because if not we don't know where we'll end up.
“We have to keep living without fear, but these things can happen.
“I hope Marc has a fantastic recovery. What happened was scary and serious, but he's lived to tell the tale.
“But we're in a world where we don't know where we'll end up. I don't know where we're heading.”