Lisbon (AFP) – The UEFA Champions League quarter-finals get underway in Lisbon on Wednesday, four months later than scheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic and as one-off matches, all behind closed doors, rather than two-legged ties.
AFP Sport looks at what to expect in each tie in the ‘Final Eight’ of this season’s competition:
– Atalanta v PSG –
(Estadio da Luz, Wednesday 1900 GMT)
On paper, Paris Saint-Germain should beat Atalanta. After all, Neymar’s annual salary of around 36 million euros ($42.5m) is believed to be equivalent to Atalanta’s entire wage bill.
However, PSG have yet to convince at the business end of the Champions League since the Qatari takeover of the club nearly a decade ago and have not been beyond the quarter-finals in that time.
Indeed, they had not won a knock-out tie in four years before eliminating Borussia Dortmund in the last 16 in March, just before the coronavirus pandemic forced football around the world to stop.
They also have major selection issues here, with midfield maestro Marco Verratti injured, Angel Di Maria suspended and Kylian Mbappe not expected to start because of an ankle problem.
That piles more pressure on Neymar, while Atalanta come with the pressure off and the determination to win for their home city of Bergamo, which suffered the full devastating impact of the coronavirus more than just about anywhere in Europe.
This is their first ever Champions League campaign, but they have just finished third in Serie A for the second year running and scored a remarkable 98 goals in their 38 matches.
Colombian duo Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel scored 18 each, but Josip Ilicic has been their main threat in Europe — he scored all four goals when Atalanta won 4-3 at Valencia in March to eliminate the Spaniards 8-4 on aggregate.
Ilicic will miss the tie though after travelling back home to Slovenia for personal reasons.
– RB Leipzig v Atletico –
(Estadio Jose Alvalade, Thursday 1900 GMT)
Runners-up in 2014 and 2016, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are targeting a third final in seven seasons having dumped out holders Liverpool in a last-16 tie completed in March.
Atletico’s preparations for Lisbon hit a snag when two players, Angel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko, tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend and were quarantined. However, no further cases were detected following another round of testing ahead of the team’s flight to Portugal.
Atletico finished the season strongly, going 11 games unbeaten since La Liga’s return to seal third place. In total, they are undefeated in 18 matches dating back to the start of February.
RB Leipzig are appearing in the Champions League knockout phase for the first time, but the club’s ambitions suffered a substantial blow following the sale of top scorer Timo Werner to Chelsea.
The Germans swept 2019 runners-up Tottenham aside in the previous round although coach Julian Nagelsmann must now find a way to replace the 34-goal void left behind by Werner.
– Barcelona v Bayern –
(Estadio da Luz, Friday 1900 GMT)
These are the only two former European champions left in the competition, with five titles each, making this the tie of the round.
Barcelona beat Bayern when the sides last met in the semi-finals in 2015, but this time a repeat of the outcome when the teams clashed in the 2013 semis somehow seems more likely.
Then Bayern ran riot, winning 7-0 on aggregate. They come to Lisbon fresh from completing a German league and cup double and having won their last 18 games in a row.
In Robert Lewandowski they have Europe’s most fearsome striker — he has scored 53 goals this season, including 13 in the Champions League, more than anyone else.
Barcelona of course have Lionel Messi, whose own tally of 31 goals is not bad.
The Argentine is 33 now yet still the best player on the planet. But questions remain about the quality of those around him, and coach Quique Setien is under huge pressure after the Catalans lost out to Real Madrid for the Spanish title.
– Man City v Lyon –
(Estadio Jose Alvalade, Saturday 1900 GMT)
Pep Guardiola is looking to end a near decade-long wait for another Champions League title after getting the better of Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid last week.
City’s best performance in the competition remains a run to the semi-finals in 2016, but the Premier League side are among the chief contenders to lift the trophy on August 23.
City will be well aware of the dangers posed by Lyon, who took four points off them in last season’s group stage. Striker Sergio Aguero is unlikely to play again this term due to a knee injury although Gabriel Jesus has scored five times in his past seven games in the Argentine’s absence.
Lyon are pinning their hopes of returning to Europe next season on winning the Champions League after a miserable and truncated domestic campaign in which they ended seventh.
However, the long lay-off has allowed key man Memphis Depay to return from a torn cruciate knee ligament, and it was his penalty which saw Lyon eliminate Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus on away goals.
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