Champions League quarterfinal preview, predictions and the sleeper team to watch hint Atalanta
After the last 16 wrapped up over the weekend and several big teams bowed out early — Juventus even changed managers after losing to Lyon — we are down to the final eight, competing in Lisbon, for the 2019-20 Champions League.
The format has been altered in light of the coronavirus pandemic, with the traditional “two-legged” home-and-away structure for the quarterfinals and semifinals replaced by a simple one-and-done knockout through to the coronation of a winner. There are no more away goals or aggregate scores; instead, we get 90 minutes for a winner to emerge (or, if that doesn't happen, another 30 minutes of extra time followed by a penalty shootout).
Which teams have the best shot of advancing to the semifinals? Which players could be key in settling the quarters? Will Bayern cruise to the trophy, or will a brand-new team win it in 2020?
Consider this your guide to the quarterfinals.
Jump to: Will we get a new champ? | Depay's redemption | Don't sleep on Atalanta | Why Bayern are confident | PSG's best, and worst, chance to win | Key players | Atletico perfect for this competition | Picking the winners
Will we have a brand-new champion this season?
It's a numbers game, isn't it? You have eight teams left. Only two, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, have won it before, and as luck would have it, they play each other on Friday night, which means three of the four semifinalists, come what may, will be sides who have never lifted the European Cup.
Beyond that, there's plenty of evidence to suggest we'll get a new winner, starting with the fact that the format and circumstances are entirely unprecedented. These are single-leg, straight knockout games, and they tend to be less predictable than the standard home-and-away affairs. Everything, of course, is behind closed doors, and everyone will be in a bubble in Portugal. Most of these teams are accustomed to the former, but not the latter, as during their domestic seasons post-lockdown they were still living at home. We're in uncharted waters here.
But does that mean an underdog will triumph? Not necessarily. Whoever emerges from the heavyweight Bayern vs. Barcelona quarterfinal will still be a favorite. And while neither Paris Saint-Germain nor Manchester City have won it before, given their spending over the past decade and the fact that they've been Champions League knockout-stage regulars, you wouldn't describe either as an underdog.
Those four clubs are all in the global top six when it comes to spending on salaries, so it's not particularly romantic, but it's fair to say that while the others aren't exactly “superclubs,” they aren't all minnows either. Atletico Madrid have reached the final twice in the past decade, but they revel in the ugly, street-fighting underdog status, partly thanks to Diego Simeone, partly because they share a hometown with the game's ultimate blue bloods, Real Madrid.
Leipzig have been in the German top flight only since 2016 and this is only their second Champions League participation, but theirs isn't quite the romantic upstart tale, which is why so many traditional fans dislike them. Or, more accurately, they might admire their state-of-the-art scouting, entertaining football and high-energy style, but lament their heavy reliance on corporate sponsorship. They're underdogs of a different sort, more like outcasts.
Never fear, though — Atalanta and Olympique Lyonnais fit the underdog tag to a tee. The former's wage bill is less than a tenth that of PSG, whom they face on Wednesday. But they've punched way above their weight the past few seasons, playing an all-out attacking style that has seen them outscore almost everybody in Europe's top five leagues.
As for Lyon, because the French league was abandoned in March, they've played only two competitive games in the past five months. They also had a rough domestic campaign, changing managers in the fall and finishing seventh. Nevertheless, they managed to knock out a heavyweight, Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus, in the round of 16. If you want to root for the (relatively) little guy, go for one of those two. — Gab Marcotti
Depay finds redemption as Lyon's leader
When Memphis Depay left Manchester United for Lyon in January 2017, it was as much to do with the Dutch forward's commitment and attitude as his performances on the pitch which, for a £25m signing, were consistent only in terms of their mediocrity. Louis van Gaal, United's manager at the time, believed he could mould Depay into a team player, having worked with him during his spell as Netherlands coach, but when the then-21-year-old reacted to being dropped to the reserves by turning up for the game in a Rolls Royce while wearing a cowboy hat, it was clear that he had some growing up to do.
United proved to be the wrong club at the wrong time for Depay, but moving to Lyon has been his salvation and the 26-year-old will lead the French team's Champions League assault in Lisbon having come of age with Les Gones.
Depay was handed the captaincy by coach Rudi Garcia earlier this season — a remarkable turn of events to those who knew him at Old Trafford — but a cruciate ligament injury suffered in December halted his progress at Lyon, threatening to both end his season and force him out of Euro 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to both Ligue 1 and Euro 2020 being canceled, has inadvertently led to Depay being able to return to action, however, and his penalty in the round of 16 second-leg tie against Juventus in Turin proved to be the decisive goal that sent Lyon through to the quarterfinals on the away goals rule.
Lyon will now face Manchester City in Estadio Jose Alvalade on Saturday and Depay will go into the game knowing he already has haunted his former club's neighbours in the Champions League. Back in September 2018, Depay created the goal for Nabil Fekir for Lyon's shock 2-1 group-stage win at the Etihad before providing the assists for both of Maxwel Cornet's goals in the 2-2 draw in the return game in France two months later.
City were probably expecting to face another former United No. 7 (Juve's Ronaldo) in the quarterfinals, but they should not feel a sense of relief that it will be Depay instead.
Unusually for United, they insisted on a buy-back clause in the deal that took Depay to Lyon three years ago. They knew what he was capable of in the right circumstances and he has clearly found himself in Lyon. — Mark Ogden
If footballing aesthetics are your thing, then Atalanta are playing arguably the most beautiful football in Europe at this point in time. But speak to those who have followed the club for years and they're pinching themselves that their beloved Atalanta, so often the outsiders in every competition, are considered genuine Champions League contenders.
Having lost their Champions League opener 4-0 away at Dinamo Zagreb, they somehow edged through the group before dispatching Valencia 8-4 on aggregate in the second round, a pair of games that gained added notoriety in light of the coronavirus pandemic. This is all very new for the Nerazzurri faithful. Though they finished third in each of the past two seasons, they were traditionally a more midtable Serie A side, operating on a low budget and the equivalent of easy prey for other bigger footballing vultures. Their last major trophy was in 1961 when they won the Coppa Italia, but they're now the envy of much of Europe, perhaps this season's “neutrals' favorite” as Ajax were in 2018-19.
Atalanta's 3-4-1-2 formation is focused on overloading their opponents, with the midfielders there to dictate exactly which areas of the pitch they need to be playing in. It creates both space and opportunity — their speed in transition involves shifting the point of attack from left to right, and vice versa, creating space in the middle of the pitch for the brilliant roaming Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, Josip Ilicic, Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata. This tactical trickery is to manager Gian Piero Gasperini's immense credit; he has moulded this team so the players can interchange positions in the blink of an eye, while making them structurally elusive to stop consistently.
This season, Atalanta scored the most goals in Serie A (98, third most in Europe's top five leagues), had the most shots on target and third-most chances (535 — behind Manchester City and Napoli). In short, they will give PSG a real run for their money with a squad that cost £94m, less than half what their opponents paid for Neymar.
But equally, this is unknown territory for them. They've never been in the Champions League before this season, and they're only a couple of injuries away from trouble — they are already potentially without Ilicic for the PSG game due to personal reason. While many pundits expected them to bow out gracefully, Atalanta are quietly adamant they will be a force come the final throes of this competition. The scariest thing for PSG? Atalanta have nothing to lose.
“We can beat anyone over a single leg,” said Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler. “We believe in our chances, of course, otherwise we wouldn't even bother going to Lisbon.” — Tom Hamilton
Steve Nicol is surprised Bayern Munich dominated Chelsea despite time off after their Bundesliga season ended.
Bayern Munich are second-favourites to lift the trophy, and when you talk to those who were part of the 2013 class that won the Champions League, you'll learn about two key factors that must swing in your favour if you are to conquer Europe.
Firstly, according to Bayern Munich centre back Jerome Boateng, you need “a little bit of luck.” Then you need to have a “strong mentality,” with everyone pulling in one direction. He thinks of Liverpool last year: “They were a little family sticking together.” But while Bayern are now in unison, earlier in the season they were a disconnected bunch.
Boateng was one of the club's more experienced players, like Thomas Muller, who, back when the 2019-20 season was still in its infancy, found himself on the periphery of the squad under previous manager Niko Kovac. They were contemplating life away from Bayern, but now, under Hansi Flick, as Boateng reflects on winning his eighth straight Bundesliga and their Champions League aspirations, he smiles as he talks about his coach.
“He [Flick] brought back the joy for us as a team to play football, to have fun,” Boateng says. And they play like they're having fun, too: lightning-quick fullbacks, ridiculously talented midfielders, wingers sprinting infield to attack the middle and then Robert Lewandowski, arguably the most prolific striker in world football, leading the attack.
But do not underestimate the importance of Boateng and that partnership with Manuel Neuer. The experienced centre-back has seen it all in a rich and varied career, and he possesses a level-headed personality that gives the impression he is internally evaluating all potential influencing factors in the remaining rounds of the Champions League. He personally feels fitness will be king, with Bayern ideally playing four games in 15 days through to the final.
“At the end, whoever wins will say, we won the Champions League with this kind of little tournament, it was different but we made it,” Boateng says. “I think every season of course has its own story and to win this Champions League … it's really hard work and it's special.” — Tom Hamilton
Frank Leboeuf says Kylian Mbappe will make the final call on playing in PSG's Champions League match.
Thomas Tuchel has been at PSG for only two years, but on Wednesday night, he neatly explained the dynamic between the club and the Champions League.
“Every time we get close to a Champions League game, something negative happens. I don't know why,” the German said. Through the years, even going back to the pre-QSI era, PSG's European campaigns have often been jinxed by injuries, suspensions, mistakes, pressure and the stress of sky-high expectations. This season is no different.
If you look at the season as a whole and where the team is now, with the progress made in the past 12 months, how Neymar and Kylian Mbappe have been playing, how they finally have a top goalkeeper in Keylor Navas, there's a lot of optimism that this could finally be the year. The draw was kind to them. The one-legged games will take away all the ghosts of the humiliating remontadas they suffered last season against Manchester United at home in the last 16, and in 2017 away at Barcelona at the same stage. Over 90 minutes, the French champions are certainly capable of beating anyone. We saw it when they destroyed Barça 4-0, Bayern 3-0 and Real Madrid 3-0 in the past three years.
With their Brazilian superstar and their French prodigy, they have two of the best players in the world, each capable of winning a game on their own. Neymar has never been happier in Paris; he finally feels at home, and the club is hoping that they could renew his deal, just like they did Mbappe's. The atmosphere inside the dressing room is also the best it's ever been. That's why, collectively, they have become better on the pitch too.
They still naturally rely a lot on the individual brilliance of Neymar and Mbappe, but the impact that Angel Di Maria had this season, the output of Pablo Sarabia and the creative talent of Marco Verratti have made the team stronger as a unit. And in Mauro Icardi, they have one of the best finishers in the game if he gets the service he needs.
Strong defensively, balanced in midfield, exceptional offensively and with a manager who hopefully would have learned from his mistakes of last season, with great momentum after winning a domestic treble and a favourable draw: all the lights should be green for PSG. And yet, it's the worst time for them to finally win this Champions League.
The decision taken by the French league to stop Ligue 1 while the rest of Europe's top leagues eventually concluded safely means that the Parisians have played only two competitive games in five months.
Equally, PSG will struggle even more because they won't have their strongest side out. First, Mbappe was the victim of a mistimed but horrible tackle from Loic Perrin against Saint-Etienne. He is a huge doubt for Wednesday's game. After losing Neymar from January and February onward in the past two seasons, PSG really wanted to avoid losing another of their stars. Without the Frenchman, this is a totally different team given the added pressure on Neymar. Then defender Thilo Kehrer hurt his back and broke a bone in his ear, Layvin Kurzawa is out (hamstring) and to top it all, Verratti injured his calf at training last week and should miss the quarterfinal. Even if Mbappe and Verratti can play, they won't be 100 percent for the game and it will be a much weaker PSG side as a result.
On top of that, the club was hoping that the out-of-contract trio, Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier, would stay to finish the season; PSG were also hoping to keep the very promising Tanguy Kouassi at the club. Only Silva will be there to face Atalanta. Kouassi left on a free transfer to Bayern Munich, while Cavani and Meunier declined the offer of a two-month extension. If you add that Di Maria is suspended, it means that PSG have gone from high hopes and ambition to gloom and pessimism.
All the recent setbacks and bad news will certainly make their life harder. But considering PSG are a club that's never ceased to amaze, both in good and bad ways, you can never say never. — Julien Laurens
Players who should make a difference in the quarterfinals
The FC guys weigh-in on whether Clement Lenglet should've been called for a push before netting Barca's opener.
Single-game knockout rounds tend to lend themselves to impactful individuals imposing themselves on the action, so we asked pro scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen to look at a trio of players who could be especially significant next week.
Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, FW, Atalanta: Although highly respected in Italy, the creative Argentine attacking midfielder still hasn't quite achieved the worldwide recognition he deserves. Gomez is a technically brilliant player, full of lovely little touches and layoffs, with the ability take on opponents in wide and central areas, set up teammates or finish with a thunderous shot. Perhaps somewhat underappreciated due to never having played for one of the established Italian giants, Gomez has earned only four caps for his country.
Now, at 32, Gomez is playing the football of his life, and Atalanta's chances of causing an upset against PSG rest heavily on their inspirational captain.
Emil Forsberg, MF/FW, RB Leipzig: Once regarded as one of the most exciting, up-and-coming players in the German Bundesliga, the Swedish winger/attacking midfielder hasn't quite managed to push on from his excellent 2016-17 season when he topped the assist charts with an impressive 22. Even so, Forsberg is still an outstanding footballer, and while Timo Werner has grabbed the headlines (and since gone to join new team Chelsea), the 28-year-old does have the technical ability and touch of class to make a valuable contribution — be it a brilliant cross or a well-executed direct free kick — when it matters the most.
He scored Leipzig's first-ever Champions League goal (vs. Monaco in 2017-18) and will need to have a big game as a possible fulcrum in Leipzig's attack.
Renan Lodi, DF, Atletico Madrid: The left-back had the most traumatic of La Liga debuts when he was sent off before half-time against Getafe in August last year. Then followed a period of inconsistency and frequent displays of defensive frailty, but Diego Simeone stuck with the young Brazilian. Renan Lodi is no longer a weak spot and has since established himself as a regular in the Atletico Madrid side. The 21-year-old masters both phases of the game; he loves defending (and an old-fashioned tackle), is able to deliver crosses from advanced positions and is smart and technically gifted enough to engage in combinational play. He was man of the match in the Champions League home leg against Liverpool. — Tor-Kristian Karlsen
Does it heighten your suspicion that Atletico might be the “shock” winners of this redesigned tournament if you know that under Simeone, they've never lost a knockout Champions League tie or match unless Ronaldo's been in the other team? If nothing else, it should certainly heighten your appreciation of the Argentinian coach.
Of course, Atleti lost two finals to Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid teams, plus a semifinal and a quarterfinal. Then, last season, it was Ronaldo's hat trick for Juve that dumped Los Rojiblancos out at the first knockout stage.
So is the fact that Ronaldo and Juve flopped last week and aren't in Lisbon a hint that nothing can stand in Atleti's way now?
That has to be too big a conclusion given Simeone still has a fitness concern over a key player, Thomas Partey, and ongoing calibration required to get the best out of his decent array of attacking players. The likelihood, you'd say, is that he doesn't double down on his post-lockdown idea that Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa don't work well enough as a starting pair. Meaning, in all likelihood, that Costa is preferred up front, potentially with Marcos Llorente as his partner. In fact, there's a good chance that this is his starting XI against RB Leipzig: Jan Oblak; Santiago Arias, Stefan Savic, Jose Giménez, Renan Lodi; Angel Correa, Koke, Saúl, Yannick Carrasco; Costa, Llorente.
Realistically, Atleti are one of those sides who lose something with the absence of a home crowd. The brand-new Wanda Metropolitano might not be quite as rabidly passionate as the Calderon was, but those fans are special, and they help. The huge plus for Atleti in one-off matches is that they're awfully hard to beat, starting with a keeper in Oblak who often plays like he's the best in the world in that position. There have been three Champions League/European Cup finals for Atleti and three terrible “sob” stories thanks to two extra-time equalisers from opponents to deny victory, and a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss. This might just be the panacea year. — Graham Hunter
Picking the winners
Last, but not least, we have predictions! Which teams will be left standing in Lisbon? Here are our best guesses.
PSG vs. Atalanta (Wednesday): Before the coronavirus stoppage, PSG had been one of the three most dominant teams in the Champions League field thus far, generating 19 points from eight matches (third best) with an average goal differential of +2.0 per match (second best). EloFootball.com ranks them third in Europe, too. But March was a long time ago, and Atalanta played a lot of matches, at a solid level, this summer. If the layoff, and Mbappe's absence, don't matter, PSG is a solid favorite.
RB Leipzig vs. Atletico Madrid (Thursday): This is a stylistically fascinating matchup, and it might be the most statistically tight, too. FiveThirtyEight gives RBL a 52% chance of advancing, while Atletico has a slight edge per EloFootball. Atleti's form was better after the summer restart, though, and while Leipzig should be formidable again next season, they haven't yet had an opportunity to replace new Chelsea addition Timo Werner. That alone probably tips the scales in favor of the 2014 and 2016 finalists.
Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona (Friday): Despite the seemingly nonstop existential crisis around Messi and co, there's nothing inherently wrong with Barcelona. But Bayern has played like one of the top two teams in Europe for much of the past nine months, while Barca has been merely very good. Bayern had the best post-restart goal differential among the top leagues, and they have yet to suffer a single blemish in the Champions League. They would be favored against anyone except maybe Manchester City, and it's no different here.
Manchester City vs. Lyon (Saturday): Here's your David vs. Goliath matchup. FiveThirtyEight ranks Manchester City and Lyon as the No. 1 and No. 40 teams in Europe, respectively. For context, Lyon ranks between Everton and Sheffield United, two teams that were outscored by Man City by a combined 8-2 in four Premier League matchups this season. City have had an attention span problem this year, suffering about one baffling loss per month during the Premier League season, but that's really the only thing you can reference to think Lyon's got a chance. — Bill Connelly
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