Manchester City look for silver in Champions League restart

August 7, 2020

FootballChampions League

When Niko Kovac took his Bayern Munich side to former club Eintracht Frankfurt for a Bundesliga clash in early November last year, a 1-5 loss for the visitors cost the Croat manager his job.

Bayern hadn’t begun the campaign well, winning just five of their first 10 league games. They had also lost to Borussia Dortmund in the season-opening German Super Cup. As an emergency measure, Bayern promoted their assistant coach Hansi Flick to interim manager.

Flick, Joachim Loew’s assistant in the German national team from 2006 to the triumphant World Cup campaign in 2014, effected a remarkable turnaround in the space of a month.

Since December, Bayern have gone on a 26-game unbeaten run, with just one draw—a goalless one against RB Leipzig in February. In that time, the Bavarian side has scored 82 goals, at an average of over three per game.

Ahead of Bayern’s Champions League Round of 16 second-leg clash against Chelsea, these stats are unlikely to give visiting boss Frank Lampard a lot of confidence. The Chelsea manager faces the unenviable task of turning around a 0-3 deficit from the first leg at home in February.

Having clinched both the league and the German Cup in the post-resumption phase, Bayern are hoping to emulate Juup Heynckes’ all-conquering treble-winning team of 2013. They are also well-rested. The German team last played on July 4; Chelsea were in action last Saturday. But going deeper in the competition, which will have single-leg ties from the quarter-finals onward, such a gap from competitive football could pose starting troubles. If Bayern go past Chelsea, they will face Barcelona or Napoli next and either of Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester City in the semi-finals, none of whom have had a break this long.

It helps Bayern’s cause that those other traditional heavyweights in the competition are not in their best mould at the moment. It’s been chaotic for Barcelona since resumption. The Catalans, already out of the Copa del Rey in February, dropped nine points in their last nine games to see bitter rivals Real Madrid win the league title.

The Champions League represents Barcelona’s best hope of a title this season, but winning it will be a challenge. Locked 1-1 with Napoli from their first leg, they will hope to trump Gennaro Gattuso’s side at Camp Nou and book a quarter-final berth. Napoli won the Coppa Italia beating Juventus and have shown they can be dangerous in knockout competitions.

City go into the home leg with a 2-1 lead against Real Madrid. Pep Guardiola’s side will be desperate for European success after finishing a distant second behind Liverpool in the league and a protracted legal saga with UEFA.

A vulnerable defence and a difficult draw mean City must make serious improvements from their domestic form to go the distance in Europe. Given the firepower they possess in attack, City, however, remain among the frontrunners for the title. A potential maiden European triumph will need City to first get the job done at home against Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, who were impressive in digging out wins in the league. Madrid, 13-time champions, have always been a different beast in this competition. While overturning the 2-1 deficit in Manchester will be difficult, doing so is not beyond them.

The winners of this tie could also be up against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in the quarters, if they can go past a tricky Lyon side, who have a 1-0 lead from their first leg in France.

Juventus won their ninth straight league title last month, but that has more to do with their rivals slipping up than their own form. The Bianconeri picked up just two wins from their last eight games and have been in a defensive hell—no champions of Italy have shipped 43 goals since 1962.

The quarter-final match-ups for the other half of the draw is already known—one of Atalanta, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Atletico Madrid and Leipzig will play the final in Lisbon on August 23. None of them are outright favourites, but neither are they easily dismissed.

Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta, in particular, could be the surprise package this season. Set to play against PSG in the last eight, Atalanta were impressive in the Serie A where they finished third, scoring a league-high 98 goals. With PSG having not played for four months before they just about won the French Cup and French League Cup finals late last month, match fitness could be an issue for Thomas Tuchel’s side.

Kylian Mbappe’s likely absence due to injury will also work to Atalanta’s advantage, although the Bergamo-based club itself could miss the services of key forward Josip Ilicic due to a personal matter. Atletico will start favourites in the other quarter-final against Leipzig, who are without Timo Werner after the striker transferred to Chelsea. Atletico ended the season well, not losing since the restart and are always a difficult team to beat. Having earlier reached the final twice under Diego Simeone, they have the experience of going far in the competition. With a relatively favourable draw, they will aim to go a step further and win the title this time.

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