This season's Champions League is unlike any other, and for good reason. The coronavirus pandemic shut the competition down in the middle of the round of 16, with four teams advancing, four other series still to be determined and a reformatting of the remainder of the knockout stage required in order to crown a winner.
Instead of the normal procession to the final, everything has changed. The quarterfinals and semifinals are no longer two-legged, home-and-home affairs. All teams in the final eight will relocate to Lisbon, Portugal, for a sprint to the final between Aug. 12 and 23.
Friday's draw set the path for the remaining teams, with all four of the teams that have advanced to the quarterfinals so far winding up on one side of the bracket, while the other eight still in contention fell to the other.
PSG will play Atalanta and Atletico Madrid will face RB Leipzig in two of the four one-off quarterfinals, that much we know. The rest is to be determined, but it still gives a glimpse into what the next two rounds will look like. The winner of Bayern Munich-Chelsea (Bayern has a commanding 3-0 lead from the first leg in London) will meet the winner of Barcelona-Napoli (level at 1-1, Barcelona has an away goal) in one quarterfinal.
In the other, the winner of Manchester City-Real Madrid (City leads 2-1 after a first-leg triumph at the Bernabeu) will face the winner of Juventus vs. Lyon (Lyon edged Juve 1-0 at home in their first leg).
The Bayern/Chelsea vs. Barcelona/Napoli winner will then face the Man City/Real Madrid vs. Juventus/Lyon winner for a place in the final, where one of PSG/Atalanta/Atletico Madrid/RB Leipzig will be waiting. Simple enough, right?
Here's a closer look at what remains in an unconventional Champions League knockout stage and who may have the edge once the scene shifts to Portugal:
A lopsided bracket
On one side, there are the five clubs that have won Champions League titles before and a combined total of 26 European crowns and 45 final appearances (and none of that includes Man City). On the other, two clubs who had never even made the knockout stage (RB Leipzig, Atalanta), one club that has woefully underperformed domestically this season (Atletico Madrid, which has reached three finals, including two in the last six years) and one that has perpetually flopped on this stage and hasn't played since March (PSG).
Depending on who prevails from the remaining last-16 matches–which, importantly, can be held at their original destinations instead of moving to neutral sites–there could be a real imbalance once things progress to Portugal.
PSG's path is wide open–but what about that layoff?
PSG has been waiting for a chance like this.
Years of disappointment on the Champions League stage have been piling up, with the last-16 and quarterfinal hurdles proving too high for the last seven years despite spending habits that should have yielded considerably more success. It's well documented that Ligue 1's non-competitive nature has rendered PSG unready for elite pairings on the European stage, and while it's true that it has been dealt some tough draws in early rounds along the way, the continental expectations for the club have not been met.
The draw this time around for PSG, whose last match was a second-leg triumph over Dortmund in an empty stadium (before its players celebrated in the streets with thousands of fans in scenes that, in hindsight, look horrifying) on March 11, appears favorable. Atalanta is one heck of a thrill ride and one of the best stories in Europe, but its wide-open nature could provide the kind of matchup that's advantageous to Neymar, Kylian Mbappe & Co.
Making matters complicated for PSG is that lengthy layoff. It will have a few friendlies and a couple of competitive tune-ups (the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue finals against Saint Etienne and Lyon, respectively) prior to meeting Atalanta, but the age-old question of rest vs. rust will persist, especially against a side that is unbeaten in 13 games in all competitions, has been perfect since the Serie A restart and has managed to go on a run of three consecutive clean sheets.
PSG should still, on paper, be deemed the favorite to progress from that half of the bracket, and there remains the possibility of the Financial Fair Play Final that breaks UEFA's collective brain: PSG vs. Man City, especially considering the competition ban the latter is currently appealing, would be fascinating from all angles–most notably the off-field ones.
The potential for Messi vs. Ronaldo
Many things need to fall into place, but Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could share the Champions League semifinal stage.
As noted above, Barcelona and Juventus both have work to do in the last 16, and considering how both have fared recently, there is no guarantee they make it to Lisbon. Napoli has been a resurgent side, edging Inter and Juventus to win the Coppa Italia and with its only loss since the restart coming to Atalanta. Barcelona has struggled for consistency in the league and dropped points where it usually would not. In a one-off scenario, it's not hard to envision Napoli springing a surprise, though the Barcelona away goal from the first leg looms large. Even if Barcelona goes through, Bayern Munich will almost certainly be waiting, eager to embark on its quest for the world's most bizarre-yet-deserving treble and fresh off a ruthless run in Germany.
Juventus's picture is a little more difficult to paint. It must make up the deficit to Lyon, which, like PSG, will barely have had any reps before returning to Champions League play. After that is a showdown with one of two clubs that are arguably in greater form, in Man City and Real Madrid.
Messi and Ronaldo have met on the Champions League stage three times before, but not since 2011, when Messi's Barcelona ousted Ronaldo's Real Madrid en route to the final.
Transfer timing leaves some shorthanded
It's a shame that RB Leipzig won't have Timo Werner available for this historic occasion. Julian Nagelsmann's side was inconsistent after the Bundesliga's restart, but for a while, pre-pandemic, it had the look of a club that was capable of ending Bayern's domestic dominance and going on a real deep run in Europe. Werner is off to Chelsea, and his departure will come prior to the UCL quarterfinals. Considering the draw, it's hard not to wonder what could have been for Leipzig–not that the club is a pushover and can't win without its star forward. But there's no way it won't miss his goalscoring ability, and his absence is a boon for Atletico Madrid, which has shown its way to navigate this competition in the past, regardless of what's been happening in La Liga.
Werner isn't the only player who has changed sides and will have to watch his former team as a spectator. Lucas Tousart, who scored Lyon's goal in the first leg vs. Juventus, is back to parent club Hertha Berlin. Right back Thomas Meunier has left PSG for Dortmund, though his new club reportedly left the door open for him to continue playing for his former one. Whether he does remains to be seen.