With the four remaining last-16 ties completed over the weekend, the final stages of the revamped Champions League begin this week with the one-legged quarterfinals in Portugal.
The final eight clubs head to Lisbon, where a sprint to the title will ensue. At the end of the Aug. 12-23 jaunt to the final, Europe's club champion will be crowned under abnormal circumstances. The coronavirus pandemic caused the Champions League to be put on hold while domestic seasons were wrapped up, and the result is an altered format, where all eight teams are in one city for single-leg matchups instead of the more customary two played at home sites.
The quarterfinals will feature a one match apiece being played over the course of four days beginning on Wednesday, with the matchups, in order, as follows: Atalanta vs. PSG, Atletico Madrid vs. RB Leipzig, Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich, Manchester City vs. Lyon.
The winner of the first two matches and the last two matches, respectively, will then meet in the semis on Aug. 18 and 19 before the Aug. 23 final.
Here's how the eight contenders stack up–and who is best positioned to lift the trophy to cap the most unusual of seasons in Europe:
1. BAYERN MUNICH
Quarterfinal match: vs. Barcelona, Friday, 3 p.m. ET
Saturday’s 4-1 stroll against Chelsea was Bayern’s 26th win in its last 27 games. Since Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac, the old ruthlessness and swagger has returned, and Bayern appears to be by far the best side in Europe.
Every department of the team looks strong. Manuel Neuer is perhaps not quite the player he was, but he remains a formidable goalkeeper. David Alaba and Jerome Boateng have both been rejuvenated by Alaba’s switch into the middle after the emergence of Alphonso Davies at left back. Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcantara control possession, and there is tremendous pace in the forward areas–plus the best center forward in the world on current form, Robert Lewandowski. Bayern also presses better than anybody else as well. Its road is difficult–Barcelona and potentially Manchester City to reach the final–but there's no denying it's the top side remaining and one with a treble in its sights.
2. MANCHESTER CITY
Quarterfinal match: vs. Lyon, Saturday, 3 p.m. ET
With the ball, Manchester City remains an excellent side, although it's perhaps lacking the ruthlessness in front of goal it would have were Sergio Aguero fully recovered from his knee surgery.
Over two legs, Man City completely dominated Real Madrid, with Gabriel Jesus leading the press as Kevin De Bruyne pulled the strings in midfield. The doubt is where it stands defensively. City has a glass jaw against teams who can break its press. Pep Guardiola sides have made a habit of losing big games due to balls played in behind the back line–and this season that issue has also occurred against lower- and mid-table teams.
3. ATLETICO MADRID
Quarterfinal match: vs. RB Leipzig, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET
The two positive coronavirus tests revealed on Sunday–to Sime Vrsaljko and Angel Correa–are a possible complication, but assuming they do not presage wider infection within the squad, Atletico finds itself in a far better position than it would have been had the quarterfinals gone ahead as initially scheduled in March.
It had been going through another season of frustrating attempted transition to a supposedly more progressive approach and looked in danger of missing out on the top four in La Liga. Since play resumed, though, it has won seven and drawn four of 11 games and resembles once again its familiar solid self, buoyed by a third-place finish in Spain. Given how often it has been eliminated by Real Madrid, it must be a boost as well to have gone further in the competition than its city rival for the first time since 1996-97. Facing an RB Leipzig side that wobbled to the finish line in the Bundesliga and won't have Timo Werner and avoiding the likes of Bayern, Man City or Barcelona until the final are also boons for Diego Simeone's side.
Quarterfinal match: vs. PSG, Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET
Although there are only two former champions remaining, Atalanta is the one side left that really stands against mega-finance, and there is a romance, too, in the way it plays. Perhaps the gung-ho pressing and attacking of Gian Piero Gasperini is unsustainable in the long term, but it’s fun while it lasts, and it’s easy to imagine Paris Saint-Germain being rattled by Atalanta’s intensity, in part because everybody is, and in part because no side in France would ever dare play like that against it.
5. PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN
Quarterfinal match: vs. Atalanta, Wednesday 3 p.m. ET
PSG has never gotten beyond the semifinals of the Champions League and has never advanced beyond the quarters under its Qatari ownership. No side, perhaps, feels the pressure of the expectation of success so keenly. PSG is almost laughably dominant in France–there hadn’t been a single French domestic treble until six years ago, since when PSG has won four–and that seems to count against it against high-class European opposition, because it is simply not used to being challenged. That its squad is strong enough to win the Champions League, even with injury doubts over Kylian Mbappe, is not in doubt; the question is whether Thomas Tuchel has it organized and disciplined enough to deal with an unfamiliar threat.
Quarterfinal match: vs. Bayern Munich, Friday, 3 p.m. ET
While Lionel Messi exists, anything is possible, but this is as weak a Barcelona there has been in at least a decade and a half. The squad, on which vast sums have been spent, is incoherent, the midfield frequently stretched by a forward line that is no longer able or willing to press.
Antoine Griezmann was presumably supposed to add work rate to that front three, but he has not gelled with Messi and Luis Suarez and seems less effective cutting in from the left. The coach, Quique Setien, was, at best, third-choice after Ernesto Valverde, who had won La Liga's title in his previous two seasons at the club, was sacked despite Barcelona being top of the table at the time. Increasingly, it seems the problem was less the coach than the players and the directors who signed them.
The road in Portugal is awfully challenging, too, with a test against Bayern Munich first up.
7. RB LEIPZIG
Quarterfinal match: vs. Atletico Madrid, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET
Leipzig was superb in dispatching Tottenham in the last 16 and might have mounted a serious challenge in the Bundesliga this season, but for a habit of drawing games it should have won.
That failure to take its chances will not have been helped by the exit of Werner, sold to Chelsea and–disgracefully–permitted to leave to join his new club before the end of this season with his former one. Julian Nagelsmann remains a very fine coach in charge of a fine squad, but without Werner coming in from the left, Leipzig will not have quite the same threat.
Quarterfinal match: vs. Manchester City, Saturday, 3 p.m. ET
Lyon finished seventh in Ligue 1 last season, which gives some indication of how surprising it is that it has gotten this far–and also just how bad an ouster it was for Juventus in the last 16. Rudi Garcia has created a side that is defensively sound (less than a goal a game conceded in the league and no more than two leaked in any Champions league match this season), and the postponement of the competition means that Memphis Depay, who suffered a serious knee injury in December, is able to participate.
The abandonment of the French league season means Lyon has barely played recently, but the two matches it has managed–a penalty shootout defeat to PSG in the Coupe de la Ligue final after a 0-0 draw, and the 2-1 defeat to Juve that carried the club through on the away-goal tiebreaker–suggest a certain resolve. That can only carry a team so far, though, and a quarterfinal date vs. Man City will put that resolve to the test.