More than five months after the first legs come the second. Before the focus shifts to Lisbon and the denouement of this season's unique, pandemic-altered Champions League, there are four last-16 ties, started in late February, that need to be completed. Four superclubs find themselves in danger, and at least one is assured of going out.
The most intriguing tie is the one between Manchester City and Real Madrid, with Man City 2-1 up from the first leg in Madrid. City was excellent in the first leg, playing with unusual pragmatism to win 2-1, arguably its first great European performance of the Sheikh Mansour era. The only quibble was the background thought that it probably hadn’t needed to be as cautious as it was early on, and that playing with its normal adventure against a shapeless Madrid might have brought a more comfortable victory that would have effectively ended the series there and then.
But Real Madrid is now a very different side to the Real Madrid it was then. It returned from the shutdown a far more defensively assured side, wrapping up the Spanish title by winning 10 in a row, with six clean sheets in the first eight of those games. Karim Benzema and Casemiro have both hit rich patches of form. Thibaut Courtois, after a shaky start to life in Spain, once again looks a commanding goalkeeper. Marco Asensio is developing into a consistently dangerous creator.
City, meanwhile, remains the side it has been all season, exceptional in possession but susceptible if a team can get through the press. The way Madrid sets up, breaking the game up, disrupting the rhythm of the opponent and looking to grind its way to victory is always precisely the way you would set up a team to thwart City. The absence of the suspended Sergio Ramos probably still just about gives City the edge, even if it is missing a reliable forward as Sergio Aguero recovers from knee surgery, but this looks a far more finely poised of a tie than it did back in February.
Juventus and Barcelona are also both in a little danger. Juve lost 1-0 to Lyon in the first leg and although it won Serie A for a ninth time in a row, it has not been playing well this season. It lacks fluidity, and there is a sense that everything has to go through Cristiano Ronaldo.
That should give Lyon hope, even if it has played only one competitive game since lockdown, thanks to the French league’s decision to abandon the season. That one game was a penalty shootout defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the Coupe de la Ligue final, but more significant than the ultimate outcome is the way it defended to draw 0-0 over 120 minutes. A similar performance is required in Turin, and if it could nick an away goal–and the return from injury of Memphis Depay, who would not have played in the second leg as originally scheduled makes that more likely–then Lyon has a real chance of progress.
Barcelona did get an away goal in its first leg, drawing 1-1 against Napoli, which probably makes a shock there less likely. But it, too, has struggled since the restart, with Quique Setien appearing every bit the hapless teacher who ends up just letting the class get on and do what it wants. The forward line of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi is still finding a way toward a mutual understanding, while the midfield issues that have undermined Barcelona in big games for years have not been resolved.
Napoli, meanwhile, although improved under Gennaro Gattuso, has been inconsistent since the restart, and the sense must be that if it had been going to progress, it needed a result in the first leg. That said, nobody quite knows how home advantage without fans will play out in two-legged ties, so there is perhaps an additional level of randomness to these games.
Nothing, though, can surely be random enough to save Chelsea, 3-0 down after the home leg against Bayern Munich. Its position is impossible and not only because of the gulf in class between the sides. If Chelsea is to mount an improbable comeback, it will have to attack–and do so without the injured Christian Pulisic and surging right back Cesar Azpilicueta–but that will expose it to just the sort of counterattacks at which Bayern is so adept and to which Chelsea has proved so vulnerable all season. Under normal circumstances, Bayern might have gone easy here, but having completed its domestic season a month ago, it needs a competitive game to prepare it for the quarterfinals.
All of the clubs in action over the course of Friday and Saturday are on one side of the knockout bracket, with the Man City-Real Madrid winner facing the Juventus-Lyon winner and the Barcelona-Napoli survivor almost assuredly facing Bayern. The other side features PSG vs. Atalanta and RB Leipzig vs. Atletico Madrid, with all rounds from the quarterfinals on being played as single-leg one-offs in Portugal.