The prospect of being able to complete this season’s Champions League seemed remote just two months ago. With Europe gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, news of the decision to curtail the Ligue 1 season was widely regarded as being the death knell of the European football season.
The situation has improved since June, albeit ununiformly, and the Champions League is primed for its centre stage return. Following the completion of the round of sixteen, eight clubs from across Europe will congregate in Lisbon in an effort to bring UEFA’s premier competition to a close.
Staged across two stadiums in the Portuguese capital, the Champions League schedule has been truncated and localised. In a break from tradition, the final stages of the competition will be played using a single-leg format, dispensing of the requirement to consider away goals or pan-European travel.
The chances of an unheralded team making the final have been inflated
The Europa League will chart a similar path, with the final rounds of the competition being played out in Germany. The rush to finish the 2019/20 season – in the sake of financial salvation and sporting integrity – will result in the most memorable Champions League finale of the modern era. With everything on the line, will a shock contender emerge to grasp the grandest prize in club football?
With Atalanta, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig and Atletico Madrid jostling for position on the ‘soft side’ of the draw, the chances of a relatively unheralded team making the final have been inflated. Manchester City, Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona and Lyon are on the opposite flank of the bracket. Whatever happens, there will be fireworks.
Wednesday 12 August: Atalanta versus Paris Saint-Germain
The first quarter-final bout pits the hipsters’ choice against public enemy number one. Atalanta, credited for their style of play under Gian Piero Gasperini, have assumed the role as the darlings of Europe. Bergamo – the city La Dea calls home – was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, and has been waiting for the Champions League’s return for what has felt like an eternity.
Whatever happens against PSG, Atalanta will feature in the competition next season – their form in Serie A ensured that – but hope remains that the debutants could go all the way. Josip Iličić will play no part in Wednesday’s proceedings, personal issues will prevent Atalanta’s top scorer and talisman from taking the field.
Atalanta’s midfield has scored 33 goals this season, a statistic that speaks volumes about the team’s commitment to Gasperini’s attacking philosophy. Atalanta won’t be afraid of PSG; the Italian underdogs have nothing to lose.
The pressure in on Thomas Tuchel to guide PSG to victory in Lisbon
On the other side of the aisle, PSG have everything to lose. The Parisian giants have underwhelmed in the Champions League since Qatar Sports Investments purchased the club. With Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Mauro Icardi in his squad, the pressure in on Thomas Tuchel to guide PSG to victory in Lisbon.
The Parisians will be without Marco Verratti, Thomas Meunier and Angel Di Maria in the quarter-final, although Mbappe could be fit enough to feature against Atalanta. Edinson Cavani won’t feature for PSG, the Uruguayan forward left the club as a free agent at the end of July.
Thursday 13 August: RB Leipzig versus Atletico Madrid
The second quarter-final bout pits public enemy number two against the hipsters’ (other) choice. RasenBallsport Leipzig are loathed outside of Saxony but will be hoping for good fortunate against Diego Simeone’s side. Leipzig – a swashbuckling, pressing side under Julian Nagelsmann – will be without the recently-departed Timo Werner, but will look to count on the talents Emil Forsberg, Marcel Sabitzer and Dani Olmo in the last eight.
Leipzig were unreliable after the Bundesliga’s resumption – their promise of a genuine title challenge was never realised, dropping behind Borussia Dortmund in the final weeks of the season. Nagelsmann’s side are without their talisman, finished their domestic campaign on a sour note and will encounter an incredibly motivated Atletico side. Wings will be required if Leipzig are to spring an upset.
The Argentine has added offensive flexibility to his side’s strengths
Atletico Madrid recovered from their pre-Christmas slump to secure Champions League qualification via their form in La Liga. Diego Simeone’s team is not a cut-and-paste of the Atletico units that proceeded it, the Argentine has added offensive flexibility to his side’s well-known strengths.
Since entering the Atletico dugout, Simeone has only been eliminated from the Champions League by teams that include Cristiano Ronaldo. With Juventus out of the reckoning, could Atletico finally break their Champions League hoodoo?
Friday 14 August: FC Barcelona versus Bayern Munich
Barcelona haven’t won the Champions League since 2015, the Blaugrana have wasted Lionel Messi’s prime years – partly because the Argentine’s wages have decimated the club’s finances. That aside, the Catalan titans have endured a miserable 2020. Real Madrid were crowned La Liga champions and the Copa del Rey final will be contested by two Basque clubs.
Boardroom politics has spoilt Barcelona’s season and soured Messi’s relationship with the club. Barcelona’s preparation for the return of the Champions League was far from ideal, but Quique Setien’s side silenced some doubters by dismantling Napoli in the round of sixteen.
Barcelona’s squad is injury-depleted, aged and disunified. Though Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal will be available for selection after having served their suspensions. Antoine Griezmann could also feature, after recovering from a muscle injury.
Bayern should have adequate resources to oversee a run to the final
The mood in Bavaria could hardly be more detached from events in Catalonia. Since Hansi Flick’s appointment as head coach, Bayern Munich have been near faultless – thanks in part to the resurgence of Thomas Müller. Bundesliga champions for an eighth season in-a-row, Bayern are joint favourites to win the competition.
Fresh having completed their domestic campaign well in advance of their European counterparts, Bayern should have adequate resources to oversee a run to the final. The chaos of Barcelona will meet the calm of Munich. Should Bayern hold their nerve, the Germans should prevail.
Saturday 15 August: Manchester City versus Lyon
In Champions League terms, Manchester City’s date with Lyon is a David versus Goliath affair. Manchester City – fresh from their courtroom victory at UEFA’s expense – are among the favourites to win the competition, especially following the Citizens elimination of Real Madrid. David Silva will likely feature from the City bench, with the Spaniard primed for a move to Lazio following the expiration of his contract.
Sergio Aguero remains sidelined, meaning Gabriel Jesus is expected to lead the line for City. That said, Pep Guardiola has often been accused of overcomplicating his European affairs – a theory that has only intensified following his decision to field a false nine versus Real.
Lyon finished eighth in Ligue 1 following the season’s curtailment
Lyon enter the last eight with the enviable title of being giant-killers and party-spoilers. Cristiano Ronaldo would have loved to have won the Champions League on home soil, but it wasn’t to be. Lyon – defensively solid under Rudi Garcia – have a number of players capable of making an impact: Moussa Dembele and Houssem Aouar, to name just two.
City should progress, Lyon finished eighth in Ligue 1 following the curtailment of the French football season, but stranger things have happened.