EMPTY stadiums, five substitutions per game and piped-in crown noise. There has been an inevitable uneasiness to football’s return in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, as we get accustomed to the game’s new normal.
The resumption of the Champions League this month, however, offers a possible silver lining to the unprecedented changes football has been forced into in recent months. In what looks like being a thrilling fortnight’s action, the last eight remaining teams, once finalised, will meet in Lisbon for a single-leg elimination bracket to be staged between 15 and 23 August.
Here, we take a look at the five favourites to triumph in this unique environment.
As they aim to avoid ending their season with fewer than two trophies in the bag for the first time since 2016-17, whether Manchester City’s 2019-20 campaign is ultimately deemed a success or abject failure rests entirely on their Champions League fate.
If that wasn’t motivation enough, Pep Guardiola’s side will be determined to ease the pain of a limp Premier League title defence by claiming a first-ever Champions League title. There will be a desire, too, to strike another perceived blow against UEFA, having seen their proposed two-year Champions League ban overturned in the Court of Arbitration for Sport last month.
City have exhibited deep flaws this season, but they remain a frightening force when in full fettle. In Kevin De Bruyne, they boast the world’s best creative midfielder, while this season Raheem Sterling has cracked the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. Their place in Lisbon is far from assured, though, with the matter of a last-16 second leg against Real Madrid at the Etihad (City lead the tie 2-1) yet to be resolved.
Champions League outright odds: 17/5
German champions Bayern still have the small matter of a last-16 second leg against Chelsea to contend with before their presence in Lisbon can be confirmed, but, carrying a 3-0 lead from the first leg, the Bavarians are all but certain to be among the top contenders in Portugal.
Bayern barely missed a beat after the Bundesliga became the first of the major European leagues to resume play following the Covid-19 shutdown, storming their way to an eighth successive title.
Robert Lewandowski will turn 32 two days before the final is set to take place, and the Polish striker is the standout star of arguably the most complete squad in Europe, having produced a career-best 51 goals from just 43 appearances in all competitions so far this season.
The quarter-final draw has paired Bayern, should they see off Chelsea, with the winners of City vs Real Madrid in what will be widely viewed as a de facto final. Hansi Flick’s men have been thoroughly impressive post-pandemic. A first Champions League triumph since they began their recent run of titles with a Treble in 2013 looks well within their capabilities.
Champions League outright odds: 18/5
The #EuropaLeague returns, with Man United installed as favourites to be crowned champs…
…but can they really go all the way?
— Unibet (@unibet) August 4, 2020
The French football authorities’ decision in March to curtail the 2019-20 Ligue 1 season in the face of the coronavirus pandemic means the two domestic cup finals in late July are the only competitive games Paris Saint-Germain have played in five months.
Whatever disadvantage they may experience in terms of their competitive edge relative to the rest of the field, however, is slightly mitigated by the fact that Paris have been drawn on what most consider to be the lighter side of the bracket for the Lisbon showcase, potentially avoiding the likes of City, Bayern, Juventus and Barcelona until the final.
But Serie A surprise package Atalanta – one of the most thrilling attacking sides in Europe this season – will make no allowances for any rustiness Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and co. might be battling.
Champions League outright odds: 9/2
Undefeated in all competitions since a derby loss to Real Madrid on February 1 – a run of 18 games – Atletico Madrid rescued what was shaping up to be a sub-par season for Diego Simeone’s side.
The highlight of their 2019-20 so far is undoubtedly their triumph over reigning European champions Liverpool. Los Colchoneros dumped the defending Reds out of the competition at the last-16 stage, recording a 3-2 extra-time victory at Anfield in what ended up being the last game played on English soil before the pandemic-necessitated freeze.
With momentum on their side and their renowned ability to make life difficult for even the most talent-rich of opponents, Atletico, who face RB Leipzig in the quarters, can’t be underestimated.
Champions League outright odds: 7/1
Considering their size and budget relative to some of the super-powers remaining in the competitions alongside them, it is an extraordinary feat for Atalanta to have reached the Champions League at all, let alone the last eight.
And their exhilarating showing in Serie A this term – in which they finished third, just five points behind Juventus after outscoring the champions by 22 goals – means they’ll be back again next term.
But Atalanta aren’t in Lisbon merely to make up the numbers. Matched up with Paris Saint-Germain on the favourable side of the bracket, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side will fear no one. And nor should they, such is their attacking might, boasting a league-best average of 2.58 goals per game in Serie A and able to call upon such gifted forwards as captain Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel.
They will miss 21-goal Slovenian powerhouse Josip Ilicic, though, who is ruled out for the remainder of the campaign for personal reasons.
Champions League outright odds: 19/2