This season’s new-look Champions League format should give the competition a fresh feel from the quarter-finals onwards as we gear up for this week’s big games.
The coronavirus pandemic means the end of this season’s competition has had to be delayed, with all games from this point onwards to be played in neutral venues, and, crucially, over just one leg rather than two.
This increased knockout feel could add to the drama, with under-achievers such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain perhaps sensing this as an opportunity to finally get the bit of luck they need to win this competition.
But it could also provide hope for outsiders such as RB Leipzig and Atalanta, who have little to lose and can just go for it without worrying about the tactical headache of away goals.
Here’s our preview of this week’s games and the players to watch in each team…
Atalanta vs PSG (Wednesday 8pm)
If Neymar and co. can’t get it together now, then they surely never will. Atalanta have been a joy to watch in Serie A and in Europe this season, but on paper they should be no match for this star-studded PSG side.
The French giants overcame a potential banana skin by knocking Borussia Dortmund out in the last round, but it will be interesting to see if the extended break they’ve had due to the Ligue 1 season being cancelled means they’re less tired than some of the other teams in this competition, or less fresh.
Players to watch:
PSG – Neymar – this is the stage Neymar was brought in for, and all eyes will be on the Brazilian tonight to see if he can play a decisive role in finally delivering the game’s biggest prize to the Parc des Princes.
Atalanta – Josip Ilicic – the man who makes Atalanta tick, the Slovenian playmaker may well be the best player in Europe this season outside of the traditional elite clubs.
RB Leipzig vs Atletico Madrid (Thursday 8pm)
RB Leipzig will be without star striker Timo Werner, with his departure to Chelsea likely to hurt Julian Nagelsmann’s side after his fine performances earlier on this season. The Bundesliga side still have plenty of quality, however, and it will be an intriguing tactical battle with Atletico Madrid.
Diego Simeone’s side have often performed above expectations in this tournament, though it’s not yet that clear if this is a vintage Atletico side, with a great deal of luck on their side when they got past Liverpool in the last round, with Reds goalkeeper Adrian making two errors leading to goals for the Spaniards. They remain strong defensively, however, and without the threat of Werner they may be slight favourites here.
Players to watch:
RB Leipzig – Marcel Sabitzer – a versatile and creative midfielder or attacker, the Austrian will now surely be the focal point of Nagelsmann’s side.
Atletico Madrid – Thomas Partey – a player we’ve heard a lot about recently, the Ghanaian put in a superb performance box-to-box against Liverpool at Anfield and could be key to combating Leipzig’s strong pressing game.
Barcelona vs Bayern Munich (Friday 8pm)
Perhaps the tie of the round, one of the big favourites for this season’s Champions League will be packing their bags by the end of this week.
Barcelona have not had the best of seasons by their high standards, missing out on the La Liga title to Real Madrid, but they have gone one further than their rivals in Europe and will be hoping to make a comeback at this level after so many recent disappointments.
Bayern Munich, however, will surely fancy their chances of going all the way this year. The Bavarian giants won another Bundesliga title and absolutely thrashed Chelsea in the round of 16, showing that they have players all over the pitch who can do serious damage to this vulnerable Barca side.
Players to watch:
Barcelona – Lionel Messi – a man in fine form, despite all the troubles surrounding him at the Nou Camp. Cristiano Ronaldo has notably won games on his own in this competition down the years, whereas Messi has benefited from a slick, well-oiled machine supporting him. As that’s no longer the case, the Argentine can truly cement his greatness if he’s capable of doing it all on his own for Barca this term.
Bayern Munich – Robert Lewandowski – arguably the best striker in the world right now, or perhaps even the best player, Lewandowski has been sensational in front of goal this term, netting a career-best 53 goals in all competitions so far. The Poland international will surely add to that against this Barcelona defence.
Manchester City vs Lyon (Saturday 8pm)
Like PSG, Manchester City will feel they have a real opportunity here against Lyon.
The Ligue 1 side did well to scrape past Juventus in the last round, and in Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembele and Houssem Aouar, they have a number of talented players who can hurt City.
Pep Guardiola’s side have long been under-achievers at this level, and it will be interesting to see how well they can keep their cool in this one-off clash instead of dealing with the prospect of two legs.
Players to watch:
Man City – Kevin De Bruyne – a player on another level in recent times, the time has surely come for Belgian maestro De Bruyne to make his mark at this level.
Lyon – Memphis Depay – something of an enigma, Depay has been superb for Lyon and adds that spark and unpredictability with his play, whilst also seeming like someone who relishes the big occasion and the chance to prove critics – of whom he has many from his time in England – wrong.